Loved ones of Billy Harris, a well-known figure in the central peninsula firefighting community, are hosting an open memorial service in his honor at the Cannery Lodge in Kenai on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Harris, who died last December of COVID-19 at 80 years old, spent 23 years at the Nikiski Fire Department before he retired in 2002. He was also an accomplished Mason at different lodges in Alaska for 47 years.
His daughter-in-law Parissa June Harris, married to his son John Harris, said she remembers her father-in-law as both gruff and sweet.
“Everyone knew him as outspoken, gruff … but also 100% trustworthy and reliable,” she said in an interview with the Clarion.
Harris, originally from Louisiana, came to Alaska in 1962 for a military assignment. Six years later he met Catherine “Kay” Rumley, a Sterling homesteader’s daughter, who he married.
Parissa said her husband’s father was known for his service in the firefighting community on the central peninsula before she even met him. He was recruited as a training officer at the Nikiski Fire Department in 1979 shortly after he retired from the Airforce and Army after 20 years, where he served in combat during the Vietnam War.
“[He was] definitely somebody that people remembered,” Parissa said.
In 1990 Harris was promoted to fire chief at the Nikiski Fire Department and served in that position until his retirement in 2002.
Parissa said Harris was “fiercely loyal and supportive,” recalling a time he defended her career as an attorney to someone critical of the field.
Greg Russell, a close friend and colleague of Harris in both the Masons and public service community, said he was an accomplished man.
“He was definitely a landmark and someone who will be greatly missed,” he said in an interview with the Clarion. “There was nothing artificial about Billy. You could count on him.”
Russell, who first met Harris while he was working in Soldotna law enforcement, recommended him for a Masonic Lifetime Achievement Award, which Harris received in 2020. In part of Russell’s reference letter, he said Harris always offered “words of encouragement and support.”
Harris had been a master at various Masonic lodges and a Shriner, which is an esteemed Masonic fraternity.
“With all that recognition, he never let it go to his head,” Russell said.
Saturday’s memorial service will be officiated by Russell. Additionally, Harris’ son John will deliver the eulogy, and Kenai Fire Chief Tony Prior will perform the ceremonial Firefighter’s Last Call.
There will be a reception to follow the service.
Reach reporter Camille Botello at email@example.com.