Fisher Sanford Harris was arguably the most beloved man in Utah when he died in 1909. A Protestant welcomed in Mormon country, a respected Democrat in what was fast becoming a Republican fortress, the son of a Confederate family who counted Salt Lake’s minorities among his close friends, a humble hotel clerk who rallied the richest businessmen – Harris navigated all social minefields to bridge the chasms and mend the breaches of a polarized past.
He won such respect by his unfailing courtesy and by utterly refusing to make any man the butt of a joke or the target of scorn.
Born in Virginia, Harris remained the Southern gentleman throughout life. He never lost his accent, either, despite claims to the contrary: “When I fust come to this country, suh, I talked exactly like an old Vuhginiuhn, suh, but I have managed to break myself of the most of it, suh,” he once said. He stepped off the train in 1889 and immediately made Salt Lake City his home, finding employment in the hotel business here.
Harris liked to talk – “the purest and sweetest of English” – and newspapers commonly referred to him as the “silver-tongued orator.” His favorite subjects were the Utah that was, and the Utah that could be.
In 1895 he ran as a Democrat for secretary of state, saying: “It is my hope that there will be a time when all the unnatural questions that have vexed us shall be banished forever. And then the question shall be, ‘What are your qualifications? What is your reputation among your fellow men?’ and the words ‘Mormon’ and ‘Gentile’ shall no longer find a place in our political vocabulary.”
Gentile Harris, along with Mormon B.H. Roberts, were savaged by the rabidly Republican Salt Lake Tribune throughout that campaign. Harris never retaliated but continued to treat the Tribune’s personnel with courtesy.
Harris organized Salt Lake’s businessmen, of all political and social divisions, into an effective Commercial Club early in the 20th century; he declined to serve as the Club’s president but accepted assignment as the Club’s workhorse secretary.
He turned his silver tongue toward winning tourism and convention business. The Second Irrigation Congress and a traveling salesmen’s organization met in Salt Lake, largely because they were charmed by Harris.
Concerned that so many Americans were vacationing in Europe, Harris promoted local tourism. He coined the slogan “See America First,” which he promoted on speaking tours throughout the country. It was during such a tour in 1908 that Harris collapsed with throat cancer brought on by lifelong smoking. Harris never spoke again, a harsh whisper replacing his golden voice.
In the summer of 1909, a dying Fisher Harris witnessed his greatest triumph as Utah’s ambassador: The Grand Army of the Republic – tens of thousands of Union veterans of the Civil War – came to Salt Lake for their annual encampment. Harris could not join in the songs and toasts, but he witnessed the vivid success of his efforts as a peacemaker: Union veterans marched down Main Street, greeted by a Living Flag composed of red-white-and-blue-clad Mormon children whose parents had largely avoided the war, their thirst quenched by lemonade served by women from the Daughters of the Confederacy.
Fisher Harris died a few weeks after that encampment. Tributes poured in. Representative of many segments of society, the Japanese association wrote that “In his kindness we found a real friend. Now he is gone, but he will be remembered by the Japanese residents, and live forever in their hearts.” Governors and mayors served as pallbearers.
Six weeks after Harris’s death, hundreds of contributions allowed the Commercial Club to purchase Harris’s rented house for his widow.
His epitaph was, “He did what he could to bring unity and harmony into the relations between the citizens of this community. If there is a special blessing pronounced upon the peace-makers, Mr. Harris will not lose his reward.”