PEPPERELL — Most often, communities dedicate bridges, public spaces and buildings to beloved community activists after they’ve passed.
Every now and then, however, communities stage dedication ceremonies while the activist is alive and well, and in this case, still shoveling snow, cutting the grass and doing other odd jobs at 81 years old.
Late Wednesday afternoon, dozens of public officials, friends and family members gathered to show appreciation for one of the senior center’s most beloved and active members — Albert Harris.
The Pepperell Senior Center has been called the Albert Harris Center for some time, but Wednesday night’s festivities made it official. A new sign on the front lawn greets travelers on Route 111, welcoming them to the place Harris has helped make a home away from home for so many. Senior Center Drive was also renamed Albert Harris Way, a nod to his hard work and humility.
Harris, at 81, is still known for mowing the center’s lawn in the summertime and snow blowing in the winter. He still sets up chairs for events, vacuums and shows up to help wherever he can around town.
Harris said he loves coming to the senior center because “you get to see the people.”
“If I wasn’t working here, I wouldn’t get to see all these people,” Harris said.
He was able to share the moment with family members on Wednesday. His granddaughter Jessica Palmer shared memories of the man she’s always known as her “grandfather, a firefighter, and the guy down at the mill.”
Palmer said the 35-year veteran of the Pepperell Fire Department used to have four scanners going at once.
“There was never a time where he didn’t have them turned up as loud as he could have them. And when the tones would go off you would hear my grandmother yelling, ‘Dammit Albert, turn those damn things down!’” Palmer said. “They always startled you, because you would be in the middle of dinner or a TV show or even a conversation and the tones would go off and it sounded like there were a million sirens right there in the room. There were many holidays or birthday parties that the tones would go off and away Al would go.”
Harris still has his four scanners. While he lost his pager, he now has a portable scanner he brings with him wherever he goes. Even after retiring from the fire department, he continued showing up at calls just to see if he could help.
He also worked at the town’s paper mill from 1957 until it closed for good in 2006. Harris was one of the last employees there. Palmer recalled seeing the big sheets of paper in his home and the variety of colors available for her, her brother and cousin to use. Always by his side was his trusty paper knife.
The selflessness of her grandfather is what she admires most about him.
“Al will always be one of the ones to go above and beyond for anyone and everyone. He doesn’t want anything in return,” Palmer said.
Selflessness, hard work and humility was what struck Pepperell’s Select Board Chair Margaret Scarsdale about the night’s honoree.
She recalled meeting Harris for the first time on a snowy night.
Scarsdale had just started delivering for Meals on Wheels and wasn’t sure if there were deliveries that needed to be made given the inclement weather.
As she approached the senior center, she saw “a solitary figure going back and forth with a vacuum cleaner.” The solitary figure was Albert Harris.
He let her in and they talked. As she got to know him she would see his efforts cleaning up the senior center sidewalks after a snowstorm, taking care of the lawn and helping out all over the community.
“He always does this with just a warm and kind heart. As my grandmother used to say about certain, special people ‘when they made Al they broke the mold.’ I think that it’s his humility, it’s his kindness, it’s his dignity, and it’s just all around Al,” Scarsdale said.
Harris’s friend, state Rep. Sheila Harrington, said: “I sometimes feel, he feels grateful he can help you. Like he appreciates the opportunity.”
“He gives and he gives and he gives, and he has a huge smile on his face. He doesn’t brag about it, he wouldn’t tell anybody else. He just does it because that’s who he is,” Harrington said.
As the dedication ceremony made its way outdoors to the front entrance where Albert Harris Way meets Route 111, he rode in style. Harris pulled up in a 1930 DeSoto Model CF.
Parked along the street named in his honor were Ladder 1, Engine 5 and Ambulance 1 from the fire department he served for over three decades.
Town Administrator Andrew MacLean said the town had considered naming the senior center for a historical figure, originally considering the town’s namesake Sir William Pepperell or Revolutionary War Col. William Prescott.
However, once the center’s Director Susan McCarthy thought of Albert Harris, the support was overwhelmingly in favor.
“The best part is we’re able to honor him in person,” MacLean said.
As he took photos in front of the new sign sporting his name, Harris said he was “flabbergasted” by the show of support he received from the local community.