An archeologist, ad executive, military veteran, art enthusiast and world traveler, Erwin Harris was a true renaissance man.
Most importantly, behind all of his interests, he considered himself an American patriot, even standing up to Fidel Castro in the 1960s by helping children out of Cuba through Operation Pedro Pan.
“One would think he had the American flag tattooed across his chest, although he didn’t,” said Terri Harris, his wife of 43 years.
After a life of service and adventure, Harris died Saturday at the special care unit of Miami Jewish Health Systems. He was 91 and had Alzheimer’s.
Harris lived in Miami for many years, but was born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1921. He studied geology at New York University and earned a postgraduate degree in Aerial Photomapping at Columbia University. In 1943, he enlisted in the Army and served during World War II as a paratrooper and counter intelligence officer.
He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, as well as serving in Holland, Belgium and Germany. He arrived in France by parachute on D-Day.
After witnessing Germany’s surrender at his battalion’s headquarters, Harris returned to the U.S. and settled in Miami. He formed a partnership with Hank Meyer in 1947, and the two men began their public relations and advertising firm, Meyer & Harris. They worked together until Harris began his own firm in 1952. The business focused on clients and campaigns in the tourism industry, including the Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, Havana Hilton, Hotel Nacional de Cuba and 26 Intercontinental Hotels in Latin America for Pan American Airlines. The Harris Company also handled tourism accounts for Greater Miami and Miami Beach, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Cuba.
In addition to the tourism-related accounts, Harris’s firm worked with clients including Cutty Sark Scotch Whisky, the Florida programs for President John F. Kennedy and the Florida election campaigns for Sen. Spessard Holland and Gov. Farris Bryant.
The firm gained international attention in 1961, when Harris seized Cuban assets including bank deposits, 1.5 million Cuban cigars and 28 Cuban aircraft after Fidel Castro and Che Guevara refused to pay him their advertising bills.
Harris took the resistance one step further, when between 1960 and 1962 he worked with the U.S. government to evacuate more than 14,000 Cuban children during Operation Pedro Pan.
Besides his professional endeavors, Harris pursued his passion for archeology and art.
He studied the Silk Road and traveled many times for archaeological expeditions through Central Asia and China, once witnessing the massacre of student protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“We always speculated whether his activities found him in the right places at wrong times or the wrong places at the right times,” Terri said. “Whatever it was, he was there.”
Harris was a founder and former president of Friends of Art, a support group for the Lowe Museum at the University of Miami and a board member of the Miami Art Center.
He and his wife, Terri, also founded a nonprofit organization called the National Self-Defense Institute. In 2001, the NSDI launched the S.A.F.E. program to prevent crimes of sexual violence against women.
Terri calls Erwin “the best thing to ever happen” to her. They were married after working together for eight years.
At first, she was intimidated by the executive, but grew to find him charming. Harris’ son from a previous marriage told his dad to start dating “a nice girl” and encouraged Erwin to ask Terri on a first date.
They were married on July 20, 1969, the day man walked on the moon.
In addition to his wife, Harris is survived by daughter Jayne Harris Abess and son-in-law Leonard Abess; grandchildren Ashley, Matthew and Brett Abess; and sons Michael and Jack Harris.
Services will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, Bertha Abess Sanctuary, 137 NE 19th St. Burial will be at South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth.
Instead of flowers, his family requests donations to the Miami Jewish Health Systems special care unit, Hazel Cypen Tower, second floor, whose staff took care of Harris in his final days.