Are you familiar with the book Tuesdays with Morrie? Well, Harry James Cargas was my Morrie. An English professor at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, Harry came in to my life when I was 20 years old. And he rocked my world. But I don't mean that the way you might think I do.
Harry's office was on the third floor of The Pearson House, a historic building that served as the English department headquarters. His office was the attic, really. Getting there was a challenge, even for me. How Harry managed those stairs in his condition, I will never know.
When I met Harry, his health was already declining. His mind and spirit were strong, but his body was failing him. During the years I knew Harry, he grew more and more frail right in front of me. But the sparkle in his eyes never faded.
He had a devilish sense of humor. I loved to hear his deep, hearty laugh. In fact, I believe that is why they sequestered him up in the attic. Had he been on the second floor, directly above the classrooms, it would have been too disruptive. He was also very opinionated and not at all a conformist. That may have had something to do with it, too.
He was one of those people who was intelligent almost beyond compare. But more importantly, he was wise. Harry had lived an amazing life, and he possessed a very global perspective. I always knew when I climbed the stairs to his office I would be descending with an expanded world view.
The room looked exactly like you would expect a college professor's office to look. There were books everywhere. Stacked so high you felt if you breathed too hard they would come tumbling down on top of you. He had lots of artwork. Not fancy, framed stuff. Art that had been created by people he knew and given to him in its original state.
There were pictures of him with famous, well known people. Harry was a world-renowned expert on the Holocaust and religion. He had written, contributed to and/or edited . He was personal friends with people like Nobel Prize winner (and Holocaust survivor)
He had the most uncomfortable chairs. But I never minded. I sat in them for hours just so we could keep talking. I always rose reluctantly. It was rare for me to be the one who ended the conversation. I would have been content had he done all the talking, but Harry was not interested in one-sided discussions.
I visited Harry on an almost daily basis, ostensibly to talk about school assignments. But we never did. We talked about life. He had so many fascinating stories. And such a enlightened outlook. I spent countless hours in that office. And he took full advantage. Harry was on a mission with me.
Harry never let me settle for good enough. He insisted, kindly but firmly, that I push myself farther than I thought I was capable of. He would not take no for an answer, nor accept any of my excuses. I could not fake it with Harry. He knew, better than I did at the time, what my true talents were. Who I was as a person.
You see, I met Harry during a very transitional period of my life. I had just been through an extremely difficult experience. My confidence was shaken. My outlook bleak. My foundation cracked and vulnerable. I was lost. I had no idea where I was going or what my purpose was.
I needed to figure things out. And I had rededicated myself to earning a college degree. I transferred to Webster University because it was close to home. But really, I think I ended up there because I needed Harry in my life. Maybe he needed me, too, somehow. Fate definitely played a role in our connection.
Harry was able to reach me in a way others could not. Many had tried. But Harry was the one who broke through. Who guided me past that period of my life and enabled me to see my future. I likely would have made it whether or not Harry had come in to my life. But I hate to think of that possibility. I can't imagine my life without him as a part of it, no matter how brief the time was.
(photo courtesy of The Journal, The News Source for Webster University)
It would be an indescribable pleasure to spend one more afternoon with Harry J. Cargas in his attic office at The Pearson House. I'd love to tell him what an impact he had on me. Fill him in on my life. Let him know everything turned out OK. But then, he never doubted it would.I dedicated my first book to Harry. The dedication reads:
To Harry James, Cargas, PhD.
My mentor and friend, who always encouraged me
to do more than I thought I could.
The world is a better place for having known him,
and I was richly blessed to have him in my life.
He passed away before it was published. I never got to hand him a copy.