Henry Ben Harrison, a man of boundless generosity punctuated by unyielding expectations, died May 13, 2023, in Bartlesville.
He was 82 years old and suffered from lung disease.
A native of Pawhuska and the Osage-Cherokee son of allottee Ben H. and Wilma (Walkabout) Harrison, Henry Ben or “H.B.” as some called him, grew up in Pawhuska and Nelagoney in what his childhood friend Archie Mason calls “the transistor age,” when television was rare and computers non-existent, when children sped around on bicycles and later in cars, exploring the outdoors, fishing and cruising city streets, chatting with each other and with adults.
“We had time to play and roam around and walk and ride bikes all over town and have fun, using the time that we had to invent things to do,” recalled Mason. “Most of the time, it was productive. Sometimes it got ornery.”
After high school, from which he dropped out, Harrison enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1958. He was a “warehouse man” in the service and spent 15 months “riding around the Pacific a lot” before landing at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Ariz., where he was honorably discharged after four years of service. He was always proud of having been a Marine and was an ardent supporter of Grayhorse War Mothers.
He was a stickler for order and punctuality, a man who wore his khakis with a starched razor crease and who didn’t think twice about snapping at those who committed the sin of arriving tardily to appointments – even if they were envoys from the likes of film director Martin Scorsese, whose properties manager took a Henry Ben tongue-lashing after showing up late to get dishes for the upcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
His life was one devoted, perhaps unwittingly, to turning adversity into success. After his Marine Corps service, he lapsed into alcoholism and became what he called a “bum,” spending about 20 years riding the rails and hitching rides around the American west, picking up odd jobs as a day laborer, cowboy and field hand on harvests.
Eventually, he quit drinking. He parlayed the skills he had honed working with electricians, plumbers and carpenters on day jobs into full-time work with the Indian Health Service, for whom he became a facilities manager at clinics in the West, including for the Makah Tribe in Neah Bay, Wash., and at Kingman, Ariz., an assignment that required some helicopter commutes to an outpost at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
He never forgot those he left behind on the streets and in hobo camps.
“The generosity of spirit that he showed when he did straighten up after those many years of hoboing was remarkable,” said his brother, David Harrison. “He would ask for things for his birthday and Christmas that were utilitarian, like work clothes, gloves and coats. Then he’d load it all in his car and head for the north side of Tulsa and pass out all of his things to people in the street.
“’I’ve been one of those guys and I know what they need,’ he’d say.”
Eddy Red Eagle Jr. recalled that Harrison also delivered some other holiday cheer to the homeless long after he himself had sobered up: Cheap wine.
His generosity, Red Eagle added, extended to many realms. He helped rewire, plumb and restore the Red Eagle’s home place in Barnsdall because he wanted to help save the family compound. When Red Eagle tried to pay him more than the pittance he charged, Harrison would rebuff the efforts.
“I’d say, ‘H.B., that’s not enough,’” Red Eagle said. “And he’d say, ‘No, that’s all I want.’”
He was always ready to fix things. He generally had a full array of tools with him. Even as he was dying, he kept a full set of wrenches and drivers in the storage pocket of his walker.
“A life on the road shaped almost all of his habits,” said his good friend and former Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn. “He was eminently prepared for any eventuality.”
At the Makah tribe, Harrison’s generosity created a tradition that remains alive today. Makah member Karen Tyler, who met Harrison on his first day of work, said that early on he overheard a patient at the clinic lamenting that his family was unable to afford Christmas food or gifts, so Harrison quietly organized a food and cash drive for the family. The family had a nice Christmas, and to this day the clinic staff adopts families for Christmas.
“He considered Makah his second home,” Tyler said. “Everybody just loved him and considered him family.” The tribe even named its new maintenance building after him.
Harrison’s wry sense of humor defied easy description. Tyler recalls a group of Makah clinic staffers all piling up to go to dinner with Harrison during an IHS conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. Harrison showed up with his dark blue Chevy pickup, and when the women told him they couldn’t all fit, he deadpanned: “Just hop in the back and act like a bunch of Indians and lay down!”
Addicted to buying things from TV shopping channels, Harrison owned an inordinate number of vacuum cleaners, tiny but ineffective swamp coolers, silicone lids, pineapple corers, kitchen gadgets of uncertain purpose, and Amazon Kindles and Alexas, most of which he never used. He did get a friend to set up one Alexa. To test it, his first command was: “Alexa, play Ponca War Dance songs.”
Henry Ben Harrison is survived by: His brothers, David Harrison of Albuquerque, and Jonathan Harrison of Cleveland, Okla.; a daughter he learned of late in life, Anne Marie Tahkeal, of Yakima, Wash.; nieces Samantha, Mikel and Rikki Ann; and two nephews both named John. He was predeceased by his parents and a brother, Richard “Rick” Harrison.
At his instruction, Harrison was cremated shortly after his death and will be honored at a memorial breakfast at 8:30 a.m. on June 14 at the Grayhorse community building. He requested that Osage Minerals Council Chairman Everett Waller speak at the breakfast, but from his hospital bed made a video recording to advise Waller to “keep it short.”
Crystal StandingBear, a nurse who cared for and loved Harrison for many years, was with him until the end. She wept describing how Henry Ben doted on her, and her two daughters, one of whom would pat him on the back when he was wracked by coughing and beg him to stop smoking.
“He came from a different time. He felt like he was getting too old for this world,” StandingBear said. “I think he felt ready to go but he was going to miss the relationships he had.
“I will miss him loving my kids and loving me. There’s just not very many people like Mr. Harrison around who listen. He was a just a good person. He wasn’t perfect. No one is.”