Some big shoes to fill

Harris replaces state's longest-serving mayor with goal to keep peace

The HeraldOctober 6, 2008 

James Harris, the mayor of Richburg, drives a school bus that leaves from Lewisville High School. Harris, 55, was the only person who filed for the seat after previous mayor John Boyd McCrorey died in July at age 91.

JIM STRATAKOS • JSTRATAKOS@HERALDONLINE.COM

RICHBURG -- Barely a day after he'd been sworn in as Richburg's mayor, James Harris' phone rang.

"Can you come by my house?" the caller asked.

"What do you need?" Harris responded.

"You the mayor," was the answer.

Thus Harris began his tenure shepherding this Chester County town of 335, a hamlet near Exit 65 off Interstate 77.

Harris, 55, is the town's first black mayor and only the third person ever to hold the post. John Boyd McCrorey served as the town's mayor from 1967 until he died in July at age 91. He was the longest-serving mayor in the state at the time of his death.

Because Harris was the only person who filed for the seat, he got it. But the magnitude of replacing such a well-established and well-loved mayor didn't sink in until he was preparing to give a speech on the night he was sworn in.

"It dawned on me," he said. "He was mayor for 41 years. A lot of stuff transpired during this time. So that does leave big shoes to fill."

Being Richburg's mayor is sort of like being Andy in Mayberry, except without the badge because Richburg doesn't have a police department.

What the town does have is a need for someone to answer residents' complaints, such as when a neighbor's grass is too high or when an old car is parked where it shouldn't be. What McCrorey did for so many years is what Harris is doing now: Trying to help local folks with their problems.

Harris has lived in Richburg all his life. He graduated from Lewisville High School and has worked in the area's schools for 33 years. He's now a pupil transportation supervisor, overseeing 15 bus drivers and making sure Lewisville's young passengers get to and from school.

Hands-on guy

Harris' colleagues describe him as an enthusiastic worker who's willing to tackle anything from a booster club event to a beauty pageant.

"He will learn who to call and he will follow through," said Ellen Reid, a high school classmate and chairwoman of the social studies department at Lewisville High School. "He doesn't mind working from the bottom up and getting something done."

Harris first got into politics after McCrorey asked him to join the town's zoning board in the 1980s. When a Town Council member retired three-and-a-half years ago, she told him he should run for her seat.

He did and he won, but he can't give a reason why he jumped into politics.

"I thought maybe I could make a difference," he said.

Harris admits he has no policy plans or goals for the town, save a dream of building a senior citizens day care here.

But the government doesn't do much in Richburg: Pass a budget every year. Answer neighbors' complaints. Apply for grants. Make sure the local park stays clean.

"Something like Chester probably would be a headache," Harris said of being mayor in the place he describes as a "big city." "Richburg probably won't be a big headache."

Although he says there's not much to do, his supporters say Harris is ready for whatever challenges he may face.

"Change is difficult, especially in little rural areas," Reid said. "But we're in a new generation. ... The kids that I teach today face different challenges than I did, and that James did. And he has grown with the times and can recognize those changes that we need."

'He fell right into place'

Town Councilman Barnette Nichols said Harris becoming mayor hasn't been much of a change.

"It's not like you got a new person," he said. "He fell right in place."

Unlike his predecessor, Harris likely will never hold the title of longest-serving mayor. His term ends in June and he says he'll probably run for the office then, but he has no plans to spend several decades here.

For now, he's content doing what he's done since that first day, when a guy called wanting him to talk to the state Department of Transportation about the poor condition of his road.

The guy could have called on his own. But Harris is the mayor.

"You just try to keep the town afloat," he said. "Keep peace."

Charles D. Perry • 329-4068

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