116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Dr. Percy G. Harris, the first black physician in Cedar Rapids who broke down racial barriers and inspired others through his community leadership, died Tuesday at his home. He was 89.
In the modern history of Cedar Rapids, Harris was considered by many who knew him a giant.
As medical staff president at St. Luke's Hospital in 1976, he was a driving force behind introducing the city's only program of cardiac catheterization and cardiovascular surgery.
In 1977, he was appointed as the first black member of the Iowa Board of Regents.
He helped raise money for the Jane Boyd Community House, served with the local NAACP chapter and became the Linn County Medical Examiner, a post he held for decades.
'I firmly believe he was the most well-respected person who ever lived in Cedar Rapids,' said Dale Todd, a former Cedar Rapids City Council member and close friend who described Harris as a mentor. 'The admiration for him spanned generations, races, professions and religions.'
UnityPoint Health St. Luke's hospital spokeswoman Sarah Corizzo said the hospital was notified of the death by the family on Tuesday.
Cedar Memorial Funeral Home is handling the arrangements. A service likely will take place next week, said funeral director David Pfiffner.
Harris and his wife, Lileah Harris, came to Cedar Rapids in 1957 for his internship with St. Luke's Hospital.
'He used to say the pay was just better than cigarette money,' said Mark Stoffer Hunter, historian with The History Center of Cedar Rapids and a friend.
At the time, the Harris family lived in a house owned by the hospital, due to racial restrictions on where they could live.
In 1961, Cedar Rapids businessman Robert Armstrong advocated for the family and asked St. Paul's United Methodist Church to sell one of its lots in the 3600 block of Bever Avenue SE to the Harris family.
It was a controversial moment that split the congregation. Out of 751 church members who attended a vote on the issue, 460 agreed to sell the lot to Harris.
Harris and his family helped change the very nature of the community's outlook on social issues of race, Stoffer Hunter said. In fact, after the housing controversy, Cedar Rapids saw very little racial unrest — unlike some other Iowa communities.
'I think it had nothing but a positive effect on Cedar Rapids,' Stoffer Hunter said. 'I call it social enlightenment. I think because of the incident and everything Dr. Harris did in his life, Cedar Rapids became more enlightened and a more welcoming community.'
The move marked the beginning of the doctor's active public life. Harris held several leadership positions over the decades, including his time as president of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP in 1964 and as a member of the Black Culture Advisory Board at Coe College.
Harris also was the Linn County Medical Examiner for the better part of 40 years, Stoffer Hunter said. Todd said no matter the role, Harris was respected, including his work with law enforcement.
'He was able to bridge this racial divide based on his skill and his professionalism,' Todd said. 'He knew his job and he did it well.'
Lileah Harris also took on the role of community leader with her husband while the pair raised 12 children together.
'But through all his long hours and hard work, he maintained his love for his wife and his family. Everyone throughout the community could see that in the success his family has had,' Todd said.
Lileah Harris served on the board of the NAACP and on the Cedar Rapids Human Rights Commission, among others. She died in 2014.
Last year, President and Chief Executive Officer of UnityPoint Health St. Luke's Hospital Ted Townsend led an effort to write the story of Percy and Lileah Harris.
The book, 'A Healing Presence in Our Community: The Percy G. Harris Family,' is available to read online by visiting issuu.com and searching for 'Percy Harris.'
Stoffer Hunter said Harris was an 'incredibly iconic' individual, in life and in history.
'Cedar Rapids and Linn County are definitely a better community for him being here,' Stoffer Hunter said. 'He will be greatly missed. I think his legacy will be permanently with us.'
Services for Dr. Percy Harris take place at 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 30, at St. Paul United Methodist Church, 1340 Third Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids. Visitation is from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29, at Cedar Memorial Park Chapel of Memories Stateroom, 4200 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids.
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