My Friend Harrison

Words rarely fail me, as my family and friends frequently point out. But when I was asked to write about what Harrison Ullmann meant to this City and those of us who care about it, I suddenly found words…

Words rarely fail me, as my family and friends frequently point out. But when I was asked to write about what Harrison Ullmann meant to this City and those of us who care about it, I suddenly found words very difficult to come by. How do I describe a dear and infuriating friend to people who did not have the privilege of knowing him, arguing with him, laughing with him? How do I put into words the incredible service I believe he rendered to this community?

Harrison had a towering and mature intellect, but in so many ways he retained the best qualities of childhood.

Like a child, he was totally, sometimes painfully, honest. There was no hidden agenda, no duplicity, with Harrison. What you saw was what you got. He always reminded me of the child in the story of the vain Emperor: it was Harrison, watching the parade go by, who would ignore the politically correct pundits, the posturing wannabes and the fawning courtiers, to announce that, in point of fact, the Emperor was naked. He called ‘em like he saw them, and when he hit the bulls-eye, as he often did, his phrases passed into local language–the "World’s Worst Legislature," "the BayhSmith twins" and many others have become a part of Indiana’s political rhetoric.

He also retained a child’s sense of fairness–what James Q. Wilson has called "the moral sense." Nothing got Harrison’s dander up more quickly than powerless people being picked on, whether it was inmates in the jail being denied basic human treatment, or poor people being blamed for being poor, or gay people being vilified because they chose the wrong people to love. He never "grew up" to understand the necessity of cruelty; never "matured" enough to be indifferent to injustice.

Like very young children, Harrison was fearless. He would wade into the middle of a controversy, taking sides and battling what he saw as the forces of evil (or indifference, or banality) with absolutely no concern about personal cost. While he sometimes missed an issue’s nuance or complexity, he made up for it with passion and good will. Once he was convinced he was right about an issue, it simply didn’t matter if all the powers-that-be, or even his own good friends, were on the other side.

Most of all, Harrison retained a child’s sense of wonder. He was one of the most fully alive people I have ever known. Everything was fascinating. Everyone was interesting. And a day without great belly-laughs was a wasted day. There are so many people who sleep-walk through life. Their timidity, or self-absorption, or notions of "mature" behavior wall them off from life; when they die, other people shake their heads and say "Isn’t it too bad he/she never really lived?" No one will say that about Harrison Ullmann. He lived every single day, entranced by the adventure of it all. The word "gusto" was coined for him.

I first got to know Harrison well over twenty years ago, when we worked together on one of the periodic lost causes that would unite us. This one was "Taxpayers for a Better Indianapolis," and the cause was better funding for IPS. Over the span of the years, we would lunch frequently and argue often about political and civic life in Indianapolis. I don’t know whether Harrison got smarter as the years went on, or whether I did, but he convinced me of the acuity of his vision more often. His observations came to seem more trenchant, more "right on." Who could disagree with abating contamination to prevent poor children from suffering lead poisoning? How could I argue that Indianapolis really needs eighteen separate police departments?

There is one thing I know: right or wrong, Harrison’s was a voice Indianapolis desperately needed to hear. We are not a contentious community; we tend to shrink from conflict and controversy. That isn’t altogether a bad thing. Civility is an important virtue. But we have a tendency to prefer peace to justice, a tendency to privilege some voices above others, to sweep uncomfortable realities or unpleasant people under the civic rug. Harrison didn’t let us get away with that. His was a voice for the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the disheartened. When he was most annoying, Harrison was most important and necessary.

In the Bible, where it says "and a little child shall lead them" I think it means the Harrison Ullmanns of this world.