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John C. Harrison

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HELENA - John Conway Harrison, 98, of Helena, the longest serving justice in the history of the Montana Supreme Court, died of natural causes on Friday, Nov. 11, in Helena.

Funeral services are 11 a.m. Nov. 19 at St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral. A Rite of Committal ceremony with military honors will follow at Montana State Veterans Cemetery at Fort Harrison. A reception will be held at 1:15 p.m. at the Montana Club.

A lawyer, judge and longtime public servant, Judge Harrison was a keen observer of the human condition and concerned with social justice throughout his life. As a young welfare worker during the Great Depression, assisting starving families across rural Montana, he witnessed hardship that he later recalled, had "a tremendous impact emotionally and politically on me."

In the 1950s, as the Democratic county attorney in Helena, he often went head-to-head with Wellington D. Rankin, one of the most complex and powerful Republicans in Montana history. "He wanted somebody … he could control," Harrison later recalled. "I was not that man."

John Conway Harrison was born on April 28, 1913, in Grand Rapids, Minn., the first of three children of Dr. Francis Randall Harrison, a dentist; and Ethel Conway Harrison, a teacher and women's rights advocate. A family of passionate political beliefs, his father, a Republican, and his mother, a Democrat, eventually moved to Montana, where Mrs. Harrison became Dean of Women at Montana State College (now MSU) in Bozeman, and Dr. Harrison established a dental practice in Harlowton.

Judge Harrison said he became interested in the field of law as a young man because of a judge who sometimes ate across the table from him at a boardinghouse in Harlowton, where he moved with his father in 1928. The judge would flip soup from a spoon and open his mouth just as the soup arrived (and sometimes missed its mark.) But he won young John's admiration with self-deprecating stories, especially one John later loved to tell in which the town drunk asked the judge, never a well-dressed man, if he was going to the masquerade party in town that weekend. No, the judge replied, I wouldn't have anything to wear. Well, the drunk said, "you zip up your pants and put on a fresh tie and I'll go sober, and they won't know either one of us."

A self-professed late bloomer as a student, John quickly displayed the social enterprise that would characterize his life. At age 15 in Harlowton, already an Eagle Scout, he organized a Boy Scout troop and acted as Scoutmaster. He played football and basketball for Harlowton High School, recalling later that basketball games against the town of Judith Gap required extra toughness because of the small church gymnasium, with its court flanked with legions of church ladies who stuck their hatpins into the Harlowton players every time they inbounded the ball.

In the fall of 1931, John attended Montana State College in Bozeman, where his mother recently had become a dean. He studied agricultural economics and played football for the Bobcats from 1931 - 1933. He also was on the track team. In 1932, John joined the Beta Rho chapter of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, beginning what was to be an almost 80-year membership as a devoted Sigma Chi.

In 1935, he enrolled at the University of Montana Law School in Missoula. There he met the love of his life, Virginia Flanagan, a brilliant undergraduate from Great Falls. "She was so bright she could read the entire book the night before an examination and get an 'A,'" he later recalled. Their courtship was interrupted when John's injudicious exchange of words with a professor earned him an involuntary "sabbatical" from law school at the end of his second year.

In the summer of 1936, a fraternity brother helped John get a job driving the Red Buses in Glacier National Park. He was a Gear Jammer the summers of 1936, 1937, 1939 and 1940. John's love for Glacier Park, where his family vacationed every summer on Lake McDonald, continued throughout his lifetime.

In 1937, John left for Washington, D.C., where he discovered that the best job open to a former president of Montana's Young Democrats with two years of law school under his belt was inking letters onto the spines of books in the Library of Congress. The following year he was admitted to George Washington University Law School, where he earned top marks and graduated in 1940.

The U.S. Army called him into active service in September 1940. In August 1941, he and Virginia Flanagan were married in Great Falls. His Army service with the 7th Corps posted him to England in 1943, where he worked on the planning for D-Day Operation Overlord. He followed the 7th Corps through France, Holland and into Germany for V-E Day in 1945, and after the war remained in the Army Reserve, retiring as a full colonel.

He and Virginia moved to Helena in 1946, where they raised six children - Nina, Bob, Molly, Pat, Randy and Lee. In November 1960, in what John described as a "landslide victory" of 1,560 votes statewide, he was elected a Justice on the Montana Supreme Court, and was re-elected in 1966, 1972, 1978 and 1986. Prior to his 34-year tenure on the Montana Supreme Court, he served as county attorney for Lewis and Clark County, city attorney in East Helena and legal counsel for the Fort Belknap Tribe.

Judge Harrison was active in a wide array of national and community organizations. He was elected national president of the American Lung Association in 1967, and was a member of the Helena Kiwanis Club for more than 60 years. He loved Scouting, serving for more than 20 years as Scoutmaster of Troop 108, and for decades on the Montana Boy Scout Council. A strong supporter of Carroll College in Helena, he also spent many years on the school's President's Council.

He was predeceased by his first wife, the former Virginia Flanagan, who died in 1984; and by their son, Pat Harrison. The Judge's second wife, the former Ethel Harrison, whom he met while she was clerk of the Montana Supreme Court, died in 1998.

His survivors include his daughter, Nina Harrison (granddaughter Aidan Myhre, great-grandsons Andrew Frank and Peter Frank); son Bob Harrison (daughter-in-law Tanya, granddaughter Taryn Harrison); daughter Molly Howard (son-in-law Dr. Raymond Howard); son Randy Harrison (grandchildren Lindsay Harrison, Chase Harrison and John Harrison); daughter Dr. Lee Harrison (son-in-law Dr. Fred Olson, grandsons Chris Olson and Patrick Olson); his sister, Betty Bailey; niece Mary Lynn Bailey; and nephew Bob Bailey.

Known to all as "Judge," John Harrison not only became a judge and an extraordinary public servant, but also an incomparable storyteller. His enthusiasm for the state of Montana never flagged from the moment he arrived in 1928. On his desk he kept the words of John Steinbeck: "I'm in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition and even some affection. But with Montana, it is love."

The Harrison family would like to express its gratitude to Dr. Jay Larson and the staff of the Rocky Mountain Care Center and Hospice of St. Peters for the excellent care provided to John.

Condolences may be posted online at www.aswfuneralhome.com and/or www.gftribune.com/obituaries.

Published in Great Falls Tribune on Nov. 13, 2011
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