Farmington's 'Happy Harry' left 'quiet impact' on San Juan County's nonprofit community

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Harry Burns — better known as "Happy Harry" to the many people he helped — died on Friday, but the effect he had on the community lives on.

For the last 12 years, Burns worked at the Wal-Mart on East Main Street, delivering damaged or unsalable items from the store to local nonprofits each week.

Burns, 65, leaves a hole in the nonprofit and educational communities he supported.

"He was tireless. Tenacious. Look up that word, and that's Harry," said Robin Cannon, who worked with Burns at the East Main Street Wal-Mart. "One of my favorite things he used to say with a smile and his eyes glowing, he'd say, 'This isn't about me.' He never took any credit."

Cannon said Burns spearheaded the Box Tops for Education program, setting out Box Tops drop-off bins at schools, fire and police departments and businesses. In the three or four years Burns led the effort, about $60,000 was raised to benefit schools, Cannon said.

"Any time we had a project that would impact the community, Harry was the go-to guy because he knew everybody, and he knew how to make it take off," she said.

Burns served on the regional council for the Wal-Mart Foundation's State Giving Program, led cleanup days and fishing clinics for children at the Navajo Lake Marina and worked with agencies in San Juan County to help them receive grants.

Burns also helped increase school participation in San Juan Regional Medical Center's full engagement training program, a health initiative aimed at children, said Sandra Grunwaldt, who manages that program and the hospital's diabetes education program. Most of all, Grunwaldt said, he exemplified community service.

"He believed in the work we did with kids and schools in San Juan County," she said. "He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He had a heart of gold and worked tirelessly to do whatever he could to help the kids in our community. This was not just a job to him. It was a passion."

Linda Mickey, executive director of San Juan United Way, said Burns' ability to deliver help on a weekly basis to many local organizations was impressive.

"He was behind so many things, people don't know," Mickey said. "We're just really going to miss him. He really distributed the wealth — health and hygiene products, detergents, supplies — many of those items are really expensive for shelters."

Mickey said Burns' success was due to two qualities — his passion for the community and children and his infectious sense of humor.

"He was very funny and quirky. He was from (New England) and had a real dry sense of humor, and he just liked people and especially little kids," Mickey said. "He had a signature saying, 'LPR — Little People Rule,' and he was a great advocate for children. A great community supporter."

Vicki Metheny, director of ECHO Food Bank's food programs, said in the five years she knew him, Burns was always friendly and had an incalculable impact. With his help, the food bank received a grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation's State Giving Program last month to buy a new refrigerated truck.

"Harry had a quiet impact," she said. "He went about his business but made a huge impact in our community. He did so in small ways, but they added up to a great deal.

Burns brought people together to make a difference in the community, said Leslie Fitz, manager of the Connelly Hospitality House and program coordinator for Hope Children's Fund, both programs under the San Juan Medical Foundation.

"His passion was to benefit the community in any way he could," Fitz said. "You had to listen really fast, he was so full of heart and ideas for helping. I don't know anybody who had more vitality than Harry Burns."

Fitz remembers one of the late man's efforts for the Hope Children's Fund that involved a Wal-Mart coworker.

"He got a coworker who knitted and crocheted and here they come over one day. He and his coworker brought over bags and bags of crocheted or knitted hats for the children," Fitz recalled. "That's how he got people involved — he shared his heart and people flocked to help him."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.