'Larger than life': Community mourns loss of longtime Daily Times Leader saleswoman

Donna Smith Harris, a longtime employee of the Daily Times Leader, passed away on Wednesday after a courageous fight against cancer. (Courtesy photo)
By: 
RYAN PHILLIPS
DTL Editor

The West Point community lost one of its most visible pillars and vocal cheerleaders this week, leaving shoes much too big for any one person to fill.

Donna Smith Harris, a longtime saleswoman and employee at the Daily Times Leader, died on Wednesday after a courageous and inspiring yearlong battle with cancer.
She was 58 years old.

A devout woman of faith who loved her family dearly, Harris is survived by her husband Edgar, her three children William Harris, Kelly Harris Clark and Taylor Harris and two grandchildren, Bailee Harris and Sadie Harris.

During her long career, Harris worked two stints at the West Point newspaper and married the son of longtime DTL Publisher Henry Harris, who was also the first publisher of the Starkville Daily News.

Outside of her family, those close to Harris said the newspaper and her community were her top priorities, which was made evident in the innumerable stories told by those close to her.

During this rare time as the newspaper mourns the loss of one of its own, the Daily Times Leader caught up with those who knew Harris best to give an accurate account of the legacy she left behind.

‘SHE WAS ON TO SOMETHING’

Born on July 22, 1961 in Florence, Alabama to the late George Anderson Smith and Eva Whitlock Smith, Harris moved to West Point as a teenager when her father got a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

After graduating from West Point High School, she would go on to attend Mississippi State University and married her husband Edgar. The couple then settled down in West Point and started their family.

Longtime friend Donna Ross knew Harris for over four decades and fought through tears to talk about how close the two were.

“I don’t remember many days or many events in my life that didn’t involve her and her family and she just made it a point to be a friend that got to know my family and my friends,” she said. “We were a part of each other’s family.”

The friends shared countless life experiences together, from birthdays to marriages to children and on through parenthood. And even during the last year, as Ross watched her friend’s health decline, she said Harris was never going to let cancer bring her spirit down.
“She just lived more every day with doing the things that she wanted to do and she just kept right on and did not give up just because they told her the diagnosis,” Ross said.

Petal Pusher owner Scott Reed said he wasn’t sure he could recall a time in his life when Harris wasn’t around.

He first meet the Harrises at First Baptist Church, where the couple was involved with his youth group.

“As things work, when you become an adult, people like that become your friend and that became a more special relationship,” he said.

When asked what he would remember most about his longtime friend, Reed gave an answer similar to other friends and colleagues.

“There are so many special things about Donna, but I would be remiss to not mention Donna loved to talk and loved to tell a story,” he said with a laugh. “ A lot of times, we gave her a hard time for the hours she could sit and talk with people. But in the world we live in now, I think we could all be more like her.”

Reed reflected on Harris’ love for the community theater and the last performance she attended.

He said Harris had not been feeling well that particular day and had tickets to, but missed, the opening night of the play. However, Reed said the arts council allowed Harris and her friends to use their tickets to catch a dress rehearsal.

“I was afraid she wouldn’t make it through the whole show but she was there at the end,” Reed said. “She wasn’t feeling good that day and told me it even hurts to talk, but she looked up at me and said, ‘Go ahead and make a joke, I know what you want to say.’”

Growth Alliance Director Lisa Klutts was close with Harris for the last six years and echoed many of the personality traits mentioned by Harris’ other friends, but she said the two bonded over their love for their community.

Two of the city’s biggest cheerleaders, Klutts and Harris could often been seen snapping phone selfies and posting to social media using the hashtag #LisaAndDonna.

She then mentioned how connected Harris was with the community and how she took it upon herself to educate those around her about the place she called home, which the journalist writing this story can personally confirm.

“The community is losing a huge personality,” she said. “What I loved are the funny stories, when she would come to my office and come check on me. And her editor would show up and they would start talking and she would be schooling both of us.”

Ross also had a front row seat to Harris’ involvement in the community.

“It didn’t matter if it was a parade downtown or an event at a church or just a ribbon cutting, whatever, she seemed to be everywhere and she loved being a part of the community and just knowing what was happening and going on,” she said.

West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson was another witness to Harris’ civic-mindedness, calling her “larger than life.”

“I credit her with the fact that she got every ounce and every drop out of life,” he said. “She lived multiple lives in the one lifetime she had. A fine Christian lady. Everybody knew Donna Harris, and sometimes you would see her coming and say ‘here she comes selling ads’ but everything she did she was great at.”

While her love for the community was visible to those around her, Reed said he was struck by her love for her family and those close to her.

“Donna loved her family and not even just the four that lived in her house with her,” Reed said. “She loved her sister, niece, her nephews that played ball at Alabama and that’s what I’ve thought about the last few days. She was on to something with the way she invested time and love.”

‘SHE COULD COMMUNICATE WITH THE BEST OF THEM’

Harris’ first stint at the Daily Times Leader in the 1980s saw the young upstart working as a lifestyles reporter before she embarked in other career pursuits before coming back to the newspaper as a sales rep in May 2012, according to office records.

Daily Times Leader Publisher Joe Robertson said while Harris had a strong bond with her customers, she had an even stronger connection with those around her.

“Donna Harris was the Daily Times Leader and she cared deeply about our community newspaper’s long and illustrious history,” he said. “Donna was a true friend as well as a consummate professional. It was our honor and privilege to have her on the team.”

Current DTL Lifestyles reporter Donna Summerall worked with Harris for nearly a decade and said while many people are easily beat down working in newspapers, Harris never lost a step.

“She didn’t like to write and couldn’t spell,” she said with a laugh. “But she could communicate with the best of them. She just never got burned out.”

When thinking back on her longtime co-worker, though, memories of newspaper ink and sales sheets take a back seat to something more important.

“She was the person who was so thrilled to be a grandmother,” Summerall said. “From William marrying Brandi and she has this gorgeous child, that was [Donna’s] child from the get-go. She was more into being a grandmother than anybody I’ve ever known.”

Connections were abundant when talking to those who knew Harris best, including longtime Daily Times Leader coworker Cindy Cannon, who manages the West Point office.

Cannon worked with Harris for a little over five years and called her “the life of the party.”

“She would walk in talking and walk out talking. And we would just catch whatever in between,” she said. “She was always so fun and was truly a good person and had a big heart for people.”

Cannon said the last time she spoke with Harris was a couple of week ago.

The call was surprising, though. After exchanging hellos, Cannon said Harris immediately asked how Cannon’s mother was doing after she had been diagnosed with cancer a month previous.

“And I’m sitting here thinking, you’re worried about my Mama, even with what you’re going through.”

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