People & Places

'Extraordinary life' of Percy Harris remembered

Hundreds gather at funeral of Cedar Rapids doctor, community leader

A photo of Dr. Percy Harris sits on the altar at his memorial service at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Cedar Rap
A photo of Dr. Percy Harris sits on the altar at his memorial service at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. The service celebrated the life of the physician and civic leader who broke racial barriers as the first black doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital, the first black member of the Board of Regents. His was also the first black family to move into their southeast side neighborhood. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Hundreds gathered Monday to remember the “extraordinary life” of Dr. Percy Harris, Cedar Rapids’ first black physician, whose legacy spread far beyond the field of medicine.

Harris, who died Jan. 24 at age 89, was born just before the Great Depression in Durant, Miss., lost both parents and a sister by age 12, and spent two years in a tuberculosis sanitarium before becoming a pioneer in an era of racial segregation. Rather than give up, “he said ‘yes’ to life,” said his son Peter Harris, one of 12 children of Percy and Lileah Harris, who died in 2014.

The elder Harris emerged as a role model of perseverance, compassion and grace, Peter Harris and others recalled during Monday’s funeral service at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, where Percy Harris was a parishioner. They remembered a humble man, who brought dignity, humility and good will to his family and the community.

“People are mostly good, and if you seek that you will almost always find it,” Peter Harris told those gathered, imagining his father parting advice.

More than 300 family members, friends, colleagues and dozens more touched by Harris packed the sanctuary.

Harris arrived in Cedar Rapids with Lileah and their four oldest children in 1957 for an internship at St. Luke’s Hospital. Over time, his professional accomplishments included opening a general practice office for medicine and surgery in the Guaranty Bank Building in 1958; serving in multiple roles at St. Luke’s, including medical staff president; being the driving force behind establishing St. Luke’s open heart surgery unit; and serving as Linn County Medical Examiner for decades.

“He taught his children, and so many others core values of tenacity and care of community through engagement,” said Rev. Sherrie Ilg, who led the 90-minute service.


St. Luke’s president and chief executive Ted Townsend recounted Harris’ “extraordinary life, exemplary family and incredible legacy,” during the service. He painted a picture of a man with “remarkable love, personal grace and a fine knowledge of health care and Cedar Rapids,” which led Townsend to ask Harris to serve on St. Luke’s board of directors.

Townsend described Harris’ early struggles breaking through racial barriers, including getting established at a time when companies refused to hire black doctors and some patients refused treatment. He noted the challenge of finding housing for his growing family and dealing with hostility, including having a brick thrown through his window.

“Through persecution and prejudice, he brought positive perseverance,” Townsend said, adding, “through all of that, he and Lileah chose to adopt Cedar Rapids as their own, and eventually Cedar Rapids chose to adopt them, too.”

Outside of medicine, Harris was a founding member and president of the Cedar Rapids Negro Civic Organization, president of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP, and was appointed as the first black member of the Iowa Board of Regents in 1977.

“He was an amazing man,” said Romona Safree, 53, who has had a 26-year friendship with Harris’ daughter, Sarah Beth, and traveled to the funeral from Minneapolis. “He was warm and kind and funny and successful in stereotypical ways, He was warm hearted and always made me feel welcome.”

Also on hand was Nancy Lackner, who attended school with Percy’s son Mark Harris. Lackner came to pay respect on behalf of Indian Creek Nature Center where she works as a development assistant. Among Percy Harris’ many contributions, he was on the steering committee that founded what has become the 210-acre nature preserve and an interpretive center, she said.

“They are a fantastic family and great community supporters,” Lackner said.

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