Gregory Harris who came to New Trier some 15 years ago to teach English and did much more- adding film study to the curriculum, improving the Writing Center as well as being a friend to his colleagues and an adviser to students, formally and informally-has died unexpectedly of natural causes. He was 52 years old.
His colleagues in the English department and beyond were shocked when most of them heard the sad news for the first time at an emergency staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Some of his colleagues wept openly as they digested the news that their friend had died the day before at his home in Chicago.
The whole school learned of Harris' death from Principal Tim Dohrer who made this announcement during advisory:
"Good morning. This is Dr. Dohrer with some sad news to share with all of you. Yesterday, Mr. Greg Harris, an English teacher, passed away unexpectedly. … Please join me in a moment of silence as we remember this remarkable person."
Students were quick to react to the news of his passing. Casey Wood, a student in his junior AP English class said, "He always put everyone in front of himself. During this stressful junior year he always tried to make us feel comfortable and taught us a new way of thinking about things."
Another student, Andrew Frazier, a junior, said, "He was a father figure to us. He was always so open and easy to talk to. It didn't matter if we were talking about English or not."
English department chair John Cadwell praised Harris' performance as a classroom teacher.
"Kids were lucky to have him as a teacher," Cadwell said.
"He brought so much to the classroom. He infused the classroom with ideas and encouraged inquiry among the students," Cadwell said. "He found his experiences in the classroom rewarding and vitalizing."
Harris shared his knowledge of and passion about teaching with his colleagues. He enjoyed sharing ideas with his fellow teachers, Cadwell said. "People valued their relationship with him," he said.
This year Harris taught Advanced Placement junior English, as he had for many years, as well as senior writers seminar. Cadwell said he visited those classes Tuesday where he heard students praise Harris as a teacher.
He had "sensitivity and grace. He made the kids feel special," Cadwell said.
Dohrer said, "My experience with Greg has been as a colleague, a friend and someone I admire." With tears in his eyes, he said, "New Trier has lost a giant.
"Greg Harris has represented everything that is good about New Trier High School and embodied the motto in every way. In all my years as a teacher, Greg is the best teacher I've ever encountered," Dohrer said.
Services for Greg Harris will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow in the Winnetka Congregational Church, 725 Pine St., Winnetka. A reception at the church will follow.
Dohrer, who was a longtime English teacher, first met Harris when he and another New Trier teacher visited the writing center at Hinsdale Central High School for which Harris was responsible.
Dohrer credited Harris with improving New Trier's Writing Center. Years ago, it wasn't staffed by students and was not as well used as it is today. Harris made the Writing Center what it is today, Dohrer said.
Rachel Hess, an English teacher, began working in the Writing Center about three years ago. She had known Harris as a colleague before that but became well acquainted with him in the Writing Center.
"While Greg took his position as director of the center (newly renamed the Reading/Writing Center) very seriously, his crazy, contagious laugh easily lightened the mood of any meeting or task.
"A tutor-training session from the beginning of this school year stands out as just one example of the way in which Greg so seamlessly blended his professionalism with his wonderful sense of humor. Due to his natural efficiency and command, Greg got the room of fifty-plus students settled in a matter of seconds and the training session was immediately underway.
"While many might be tempted to deliver their ideas and observations in a terse, businesslike fashion given the situation, doing so was