Former Press-Register Arts Editor Thomas Harrison died June 20, just a month shy of his 70th birthday, jolting the Mobile Bay arts realm. His Augusta Chronicle obituary noted his death “after an extended illness, at home.” There will be no visitation due to COVID-19 and a private memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.
Harrison’s 14 years helming Press-Register arts coverage comprise the longest tenure for an arts editor this columnist encountered over years of Mobile Public Library archive research. Under his guidance, the section reached its greatest fruition, both in quality and quantity.
Harrison arrived in Mobile in 1998, after working in Anchorage, Alaska. He was part of then-Press-Register Editor Stan Tiner’s promise to bring “renewal” to the newspaper’s sections.
“Your new fine arts editor is masterful,” Lee McCoy penned in a January 1998 letter to the editor. “His writing, his perception, his command of subject, his goal and sensitivity to the community shoot an arrow through our hearts.”
Arts coverage expanded. No longer was it a minor mention tucked beneath notices of garden parties and pictorials of fresh evening gown styles. It became its own full-fledged section like in larger markets. Stunning photography accompanied feature-sized articles and emphasized Mobile’s strengths.
Harrison maintained an exhaustive calendar that encompassed most any arts branch. His contacts were plentiful, his insights perceptive, his professionalism utmost.
Each September, Harrison painstakingly assembled an arts season preview. It contained detailed listings from around the region with special focus on Mobile’s approaching seasons of opera, dance, symphony, chamber music, visual arts, theater, collegiate programs and more.
During his term, Mobile’s newly organized symphony flourished. The Mobile Museum of Art, History Museum of Mobile and Saenger Theatre underwent breathtaking overhauls. Mobile Opera’s schedule had more than twice the events it does now.
Alabama Contemporary Art Center and the Crescent Theater opened. Gulf Art Space enjoyed its Eastern Shore heyday. Independent stage and dance companies emerged.
The Mobile Arts Council (MAC) became more prominent. The street festival Arts Alive ushered us into monthly LoDa ArtWalks. Independent galleries popped up like mushrooms across downtown’s new arts district.
Harrison was as integral to that momentum as anyone. When MAC premiered their annual Arty awards, it was fitting he was on the riser. Though he accepted the Business Award on behalf of the Press-Register, he was the one who clearly earned it.
When former MAC Director Bob Burnett moved here from Indiana, he compared Harrison’s Sunday section to those in New York City, Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.
“He was able to help shepherd people’s careers. It was really exciting to see. He could give people a half a front page and then carry on into the back,” Burnett said.
I was daunted by Harrison’s work. His resources were better, his network more extensive and his eloquence and thoughtfulness leagues beyond mine. He fought for every column inch, every calendar entry. He sought the illumination of the human condition.
We didn’t agree on a variety of subjects, but that was no barrier to collegiality. Sometimes, we would meet at Causeway restaurants on quiet afternoons and commiserate the wars for arts coverage. I’d sip whiskey while he opted for safer refreshment.
When rumors surfaced that his newspaper would make drastic cuts in 2012, I feared the worst. That dread materialized.
I’ve said he was the best arts editor this town has ever boasted, maybe the best we ever will. I think he is one of the most influential arts players Mobile has ever seen. So many here owe him more than they might ever realize.
Harrison stayed in the area and tried to freelance. The journalism market shrank. He created the popular social media platform Arts and Minds in 2014.
We talked periodically. I’d probe for insights on rumors. He would pass along tips on stories he thought needed exposure. We’d just shoot the breeze on movies or music.
He moved to North Augusta, South Carolina, a few years ago. His Mobile fans and friends maintained contact. He was more admired and beloved than he admitted.
During the 2019 hurricane season, he welcomed less worrisome autumns in correspondence.
“That is one of the many things I like about living up here in South Carolina, on a high hill across the river from my hometown,” Harrison wrote. “Little or no risk of flooding, and I don’t have to evacuate every time the Weather Channel geeks get twitchy and don their L.L. Bean apparel. There are four distinct seasons here, and I intend to enjoy them all.”
I hope you did, Thomas. Few others might relish it the way you would.
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