William Russell Harris: Journalist was North County Times managing editor

William Russell “Rusty” Harris. (Courtesy photo)

William Russell “Rusty” Harris. (Courtesy photo)

Tarcy Connors

William Russell Harris, who guided the Blade-Citizen and North County Times newsrooms to scores of awards and mentored dozens of newspaper people, died Feb. 21 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

A kind man with a robust laugh, generous heart and fierce dedication to his craft, Harris defied the relentless pull of cancer for the past three decades, resolutely declaring he had a newsroom to run, rose gardens to tend, and Disney adventures to remake.

But the disease ultimately prevailed, and Harris passed away at the Nathan Adelson Hospice in Las Vegas, where he moved after his retirement in 2010.

He was 64.

Harris was born in Manhattan, Kansas, on Dec. 17, 1954, to Walter Ned and Wanda (White) Harris, the third of four children.

He was a Boy Scout and earned his Eagle Scout badge. He was in the bell choir at the Methodist Church. He graduated from Manhattan High School in 1972. An avid swimmer, he had to forgo his passion when he injured his eardrum at Boy Scout camp one summer. He began wearing a hearing aid at an early age.

Harris graduated from Kansas State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and mass communications and was a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He also attended graduate school.

Harris, affectionately known as Rusty, began his 35-year journalism career in his hometown, working as a reporter and desk editor at The Manhattan Mercury from 1977-1981. He spent a year at the Brownsville Herald in Texas as a reporter and then moved to the Dallas area, where he was an editor of the Richardson Daily News from 1982-1987.

He moved to Southern California in 1987 when he got a job as the business editor at the former Blade-Tribune in Oceanside. The paper later changed its name to the North County Blade-Citizen in 1990 and then the North County Times when it merged with the competing Times Advocate. He held the title of managing editor from 1992 until his retirement.

Fellow Kansan Monica Hodes-Smail said Harris hired her at the North County Times as a copy editor “even though I went to the ‘wrong’ school — he went to Kansas State and I went to the University of Kansas. I have a Christmas ornament I put up every year that he gave me — of a K-State Wildcat choking a Kansas Jayhawk. He always gave me crap for that, and I know it meant he liked me. I loved his irreverent sense of humor.”

Jim Trageser of the North County Times remembers Harris’ dry sense of humor. Trageser took a call with a reader furious about that day’s editorial. “The reader kept yelling louder and louder, and began dropping profanities. After a few minutes, the reader used a particularly vulgar obscenity — at which point I’d had it and told the reader exactly what I thought of them. Rusty comes over to my desk, takes the phone out of my hand, and hangs it up. I ask if I’m in trouble. ‘No, Jimbo, I heard exactly what that person said to you, even over here across the room with my hearing aid!’ he said. Then he looked over at the classified advertising reps who were staring into the newsroom, trying to figure out what had happened. ‘I gotta be honest, though, you’re probably not going to win this month’s Customer Courtesy Award.’”

No one was hired into Harris’ newsroom until they took “The Mother of All Killer Tests.” There was no way to pass the test, a collection of trivia, math questions, grammar problems and writing exercises. And yes, you needed to name all Seven Dwarves.

When not in the newsroom or at his favorite recreational spot, Disneyland, Harris often found peace — and sometimes grace — in his gardens, a blessing he shared with others. “He gave me some flowering bulbs many years ago and I told him recently that they always remind me of him when they bloom each spring,” said Laura Groch, an editor at the North County Times. “He replied, ‘Well, that’s the idea.’”

Rusty is survived by his husband, Bill Adams; his mother, Wanda White Harris of Manhattan, Kan.; his brother, Richard (Carol) Harris; his sisters, Shirley (Bill) O’Neill-Candillo of Kearny, Mo., and Sandy Harris of Manhattan; and several nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his father, who died May 11, 2014.

A service will be held at the Sedalia Community Church in Manhattan, Kan., and Rusty will be buried at Sedalia Cemetery. Pastor Kevin Larson will officiate.

This remembrance was written for The San Diego Union-Tribune. It was published in the North Coast Current by permission of the author.

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