Payden Harris isn’t quite sure how old he was when he was playing a game of catch with his dad, Rodney Harris, in the front yard of their home in Albany, Missouri. Old enough to catch a baseball, he recalled, and old enough to throw one back.
Rodney Harris always told Payden Harris to keep his glove up, to make sure he kept the ball in front of him and maintained an increased focus on accurate throw-backs. Payden’s focus was elsewhere. As the game of catch trudged along, Rodney Harris became agitated and Payden Harris’ inattentiveness only grew. Rodney Harris’ last throw of the game caught Payden Harris off guard, striking him in the eye and leaving it black and bruised.
“You’ll be fine,” Payden Harris said his dad told him. “It’s a long way from your heart.”
A few weeks later, the incident repeated itself. An inattentive game of catch led to a second black eye in a month — this one on the other side of Payden Harris’ face — but with it, a lasting story and a lesson learned. Rodney Harris was always good for those latter two novelties.
“Ever since then, I’ve been able to catch a baseball, that’s for sure,” Payden Harris said. “Or at least protect my face.”
Rodney D. Harris, 63, died due to complications of a gallbladder surgery at Kansas Medical Center June 22. He was the general manager of KXCV-KRNW, a National Public Radio affiliate housed on the upper floor of Northwest’s Wells Hall. Rodney Harris served as the station’s general manager for 11 years, but his ties to Northwest and the radio industry can be measured in decades. He graduated from Northwest in 1978 with a degree in broadcasting. His impact, though, according to his friends and family, can’t truly be measured at all.
Payden Harris recounted stories and details of his father’s life in an office within the white walls of Roberson-Polly Chapel in Albany, where scores of old friends would later gather to pay their respects to his late father. Words to describe Rodney Harris’ personal impact on his son, as well as his impact on his community and industry, at times eluded Payden Harris. To communities of people, Rodney Harris was a beaming smile, a helpful hand, a comforting voice. To Payden Harris, he was a father, of course. But he was so much more.
“My dad raised me as a single dad, so it was him and I, my whole life,” Payden Harris said. “To say that he was my dad is one thing. To say that he was my best friend is probably a more accurate depiction of our relationship. He was just always there.”
Perhaps the setting said just as much. The chapel sits directly across the street from Albany Middle and High School, where Rodney Harris graduated from in 1974 and served on the school board years later. Just a few blocks away in the town’s square, workers toiled in preparation of Albany's annual Rhythm and Roots, a festival for which Rodney Harris sat on the committee for eight years.
Rodney Harris’ education and career took him all across northwest Missouri, but Albany was always home. He trekked from Albany to Maryville for his four years at Northwest starting in the fall of ‘74. From Maryville to Bethany, where he worked as a station manager at KAAN in the early 1980s. From Bethany to Cameron, where he was station manager for KMRN and KKWK. From Cameron back to Maryville, when he got the chance to come back to KXCV-KRNW.
He didn’t relocate for his last job, instead, commuting the 40-something minute drive every morning he worked, arriving before 5 a.m. to open the station. From Albany to Maryville, from Maryville back home. Rodney Harris’ influence on his town seems boundless in retrospect.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger backer of the community of Albany than Rodney. He just loved the town,” John Coffey said.
Coffey serves as the KXCV-KRNW News and Sports Director, having worked side-by-side with Harris for the last 11 years. Coffey, a fellow Albany native, has known Rodney Harris for more than a half-century.
Rodney Harris introduced Coffey to broadcast students in ‘78 with Coffey set to graduate from Albany High School and pursue an education in the field at Northwest. He let Coffey shadow him during shifts at KXCV and did his best to give the incoming freshman a leg-up. Coffey called Rodney Harris both a good mentor and coworker, but a better friend. The two men from Albany’s careers crossed paths often, but it was home, Coffey said, where Rodney Harris’ presence may be most singularly engrained.
“If there was a need in the community and they asked him to help out, he was more than happy to help out … I don’t know. You couldn’t ask for a better person to help be a cheerleader for a community than Rodney was,” Coffey said, his voice trailing off.
The reach of Rodney Harris’ impact extended far beyond Albany, far beyond Bethany or Cameron, far beyond the city limits of Maryville and far beyond the radio waves that transmitted his voice across northwest Missouri. The various stations he worked for served as outlets for his selflessness, smile and infectious laugh as much as they did broadcast facilities. Nowhere is this truer than at KXCV, where Rodney Harris touched the lives of countless Northwest students.
For more than a decade, Rodney Harris mentored and guided students on the top floor of Wells Hall. He advocated for and secured updated equipment and facilities for the station and mass media department. He wasn’t afraid to let students know when they were failing to reach their full potential. He did all he could to make them into all they could be.
“The amount of young people that he helped at Northwest is absolutely astonishing,” Payden Harris, who attended Northwest himself starting in 2006, said. “... His life was his family and radio. Anything that he could do to help the community or Northwest … anything that he could do, he did.”
Rodney Harris spent more than a decade at KXCV, though for Coffey, their time together didn’t always feel like work. It wasn’t uncommon for Rodney Harris to ring one of his coworkers via an intercom, Coffey said, asking if they had a minute for a conversation that would surely go on for an hour or more about anything. He’d ask about family or the Bearcats or, in Coffey’s case, Albany. He’d talk about work, of course, but not for any longer than he needed to.
“He just cared so much about everybody here,” Coffey said. “ … He says, ‘Family always comes first, we’ll cover for you.’ That’s just the kind of man he is, or was, I should say.”
What Rodney Harris brought with him every day to work, beyond his beaming smile and booming laugh, was a relentless drive to help, one that didn’t subside after 40 years in the workforce. When a flood consumed parts of St. Joseph, Missouri, in the mid-90s, he lent his broadcasting supplies to emergency responders. Countless times when severe weather bore down on northwest Missouri, he turned into an amateur storm chaser to keep the public informed. Everything he did, Coffey said, Rodney Harris did with passion.
Scores of friends, students and community members have reached out to the Harris family via calls, notes and social media in the days since Rodney Harris’ passing. Close to 50 users have left a comment on KXCV’s Facebook post announcing Rodney Harris’ death, telling personal stories of times Rodney Harris helped them, inspired them, gave them advice. His effect on each of them was unique, surviving years, and in some cases, decades. As a whole, his impact has been far-reaching, but for those impacted, it doesn’t seem like his actions were ever a long way from their hearts.
“People will always remember how much he did for them,” Payden Harris said. “It would be awfully hard to try to find the proper words to describe what he meant to myself, my wife, my son, the rest of his family or even the community. I think everyone who knew Rodney knew he was a very special person.”