Jon Harris: A ‘great ball of fire’

Friends and family gather for a celebration of life.

The Ag Hall was packed for a memorial Thursday evening. —Gabrielle Mannino

On Thursday, Feb. 22, a celebration of life was held at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Hall for Jonathan (Jon) Harris. The celebration commenced with a rendition of “Great Balls of Fire,” sung by Kate Taylor. It was more than just a rousing, upbeat way to celebrate Jon’s life, it spoke volumes about the man himself.

In the course of the evening, family and friends spoke to the overflowing crowd at the Ag Hall and painted a picture of a man who was generous, musical, spiritual, positive, and above all, who brought a joie de vivre and an irrepressible wit to life. Island musicians played many of Jon’s favorite songs.

Jon made an indelible mark on the Island community. In a letter to The Times, Abbe Burt wrote, “We shall deeply miss this unique and unforgettable person who gave so much acceptance and support to the students of the West Tisbury School (where he taught for years), and to his greater Island community. He was admired by so many of us for beautifully painting his life outside the lines of expectations and conventionality … He was comfortable in his own skin being his ever-positive, spiritual, offbeat, kooky self — and always a steadfast and supportive friend.”

According to an obituary in the MV Times, “Over the decades, Jon was a farmer, a landlord to an amazing community of people, a tutor, a healer, a mentor, a friend, a father, an extraordinary human, and always a teacher.

Isaac Taylor singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” —Gabrielle Mannino

“Jon was an avid lover of music, with a particular fondness for piano and jazz. Whether it was in the classroom, at Windemere Nursing Home, the VFW, or Dion’s restaurant, the venue didn’t matter.”

Arnie Reisman remembered Jon when they roomed together at Brandeis University: “When I first met him he was playing saxophone, but he would get bored with things, lose his passion.” said Reisman. “So he sold his sax and bought a marimba and filled the house with marimba music. Not long after that I came in, and the marimba was gone and an upright piano was there. He just sat down and started to play. I didn’t even know he could play, I don’t know where this came from, but the white Ray Charles was born.”

“Jon was actually my teacher,” said Phil daRosa. “He had an upright piano in his classroom and would sit down and play ‘Great Balls of Fire.’”

Kate Taylor began the Celebration of Life with “Great Balls of Fire.” —Gabrielle Mannino

Jon made it fun to learn, in fact he brought fun to life. In a letter from John Patterson

read aloud by Curtis Langer, Patterson wrote, “Jon had the quickest wit … he never had a bad day … he was the perfect guy to hang with, and I can tell you I never had a bad day with him.”

John also had a deeply spiritual side. He moved to Florida and lived for several years on the Kashi Ashram.

Howard Levin, a friend of Jon’s for 45 years, said, “Jon had a special aura about him, especially when we talked about mysticism of life and the hereafter … He didn’t call it death because for Jon, he referred to it as a change of state … and the candles were always lit in one state or another.”

Jon had an attachment to the land. “He owned a nice plot of land off Skiff’s Lane [in West Tisbury],” said longtime friend and onetime student Josh Montoya. “Over time he transformed it into a farm of sorts, with areas to grow vegetables, flowers, chickens, and goats … He was dedicated to his animals, and attended to them joyfully and with love. He loved to get his hands in the soil and grow things, even though he didn’t like to eat vegetables.”

Jon cultivated friendships as well. In his retirement he rented out rooms in his home to an eclectic and diverse group of people.

“He brought people in,” Montoya said, “thought of them as family, and treated them as such. Things were always in a state of flux, he had a beautiful living environment. Jon said yes to life.”

“Jon was an incredible landlord,” said Eva Faber. “There were people and boarders in and out of the house constantly. He was a magnet for all types of people — he just liked to make people happy, and he would do special things for everyone in the house. The best thing would be if we could be a little more like him,” said Faber, and then with a smile, “not too much like him, but a little more like him.”

“What would Jon have to say about this gathering?” said Montoya: “See ya around — like a meatball.”


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