Ask Harry. Harry will know.
I have said that refrain hundreds of times. And indeed, Harry McCawley would always know — the right person to call, the perfect fact or angle to make a story soar, the best way forward on big and broad community issues.
Harry was my go-to guy for all things Columbus, for thorny newspaper and source dilemmas, and even, at times, for the stuff life throws at you.
But you know that. He was the same for you. He was this community’s go-to guy, an influencer far beyond his official title as county historian.
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Harry died Thursday.
For 50 years as a newspaperman, he was a storyteller — writing eloquently about our triumphs and tragedies. He was a bridge to the past — giving life to our community’s remarkable history. He was a listener to your concerns — putting a face on a cause or issue that took it out of the theoretical realm and made it a part of conversations around your kitchen table. And he was a moral compass — pushing for smart and wise community initiatives and holding firm as a contrarian even when the majority insisted on a different path.
Columbus and Harry were a perfect match: a unique community with an overabundance of fascinating local, national and global nooks and crannies and a gifted storyteller with an insatiable curiosity who dug out the rich narratives that defined Columbus and would have forever remained hidden and unknown if not for him.
I “knew of” Harry for more than two decades. But it was not until five years ago when we bonded, first over newspaper war stories about the Daily Journal in Franklin, where both of us once worked, and then over modern-day, in-the-trenches newspapering at The Republic.
We shared office walls at The Republic building in downtown Columbus, really thin walls. We were reporters first and foremost, and our ears were always on alert.
I can’t count the number of times he or I would roll back in our chairs, sprint (or amble in his case) about five steps and plop down in each other’s office with our eyeballs ready to pop out of our heads because of what we had just overheard.
Harry, with that twinkle in his eye, would say, “I didn’t mean to listen, but ….”
Then we would dish. I quickly learned Harry was a straight-shooter, and his BS detector was always on overdrive. He could spot a phony in an instant. One note he sent me about a local columnist who was making an unusual request: “He is a great guy and not one of those prima donnas who think of themselves as the next Ernest Hemingway.”
I witnessed the pilgrimages local officials made to his office, seeking advice, a stamp of approval or a way to slow a growing public scandal. His blunt advice to one officeholder: You messed up. Now you have to deal with it.
Throughout the years, Harry interviewed scions of industries, would-be presidents, very important people and people who thought they were very important.
But it was the stories of “ordinary” people that thrilled him the most — the veteran whose heroic deeds had never come to light, the woman who for 43 years quietly and lovingly worked as a librarian, and the local guy who drove the same car for more than half a century.
He was the extraordinary writer with a vast and eclectic mix of knowledge and interests — art and architecture, sports and business, education and health care, politics and philanthropy. One minute he’d be writing about Eero Saarinen and J. Irwin Miller. The next moment he’d be examining the intricacies of a county budget and how it impacted your tax bill. And his hilarious rants about political yard signs and the appropriateness of clothing on concrete geese are legendary.
Harry, time and time again, celebrated the community, but he never had blinders on. He understood its problems had to be dealt with honestly and openly or else they would become constant sores holding it back. He was direct and bold in his commentary when the situation got sideways.
Without a doubt, no one knew more about Columbus than Harry. Frankly, though, he didn’t gather all those stories and knowledge for himself. He couldn’t wait to share them with you. That was one of the joys of his life.
What this community has had in Harry was rare and special — a chronicler of every aspect of our social, cultural and political life. People and places that aim for greatness need that sense of place, an identity, a mirror, a North Star. Harry gave that to us. He revealed our heart and soul over and over again through the people and community he wrote about and adored so much.
Harry promoted our rich diversity, collaborative style and generous nature. He made us see the magic behind our architectural masterpieces. He lifted up the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country. There wasn’t a community treasure he didn’t shine a light on.
But those treasures have nothing on him.
Harry has been a gift and blessing to our community, to all of us. And how fortunate it is that we will forever have his stories that tell us so much about ourselves.
Thank you, my friend. Rest well.
Scarlett Syse is group editor for The Republic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.