George Harris was a great American Judoka. When he died in 2011, he had risen to 9th dan after a lifetime of service to Judo and his country. He was a member of the first US Olympic Judo team in 1964.
George started boxing at 12 when his family moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia. George served as a medic in the Air Force. He discovered Judo while nursing Phil Porter, founder of the United States Judo Association, back to health. He became an active competitor and the Air Force transferred him to their physical fitness unit. He spent 4 to 8 months a year at the Kodokan learning and practicing Judo. He brought that knowledge back to the US by teaching servicemen Judo and developing competition opportunities within the armed forces.
In 1964, George represented the US on the first Olympic Judo team. The team composition demonstrated the equality of all on the Judo mat. It was composed of a Japanese- American (Paul Maruyama), a Jewish American (Jim Bregman, kata partner of Sensei Edwin Takemori who was the 2012 Faye Allen kata Clinician), a Native American (Ben Nighthorse Campbell, later a US Senator from Colorado) and George Harris, an African American. At the height of the Civil Rights movement, everyone was equal on the Judo mat.
George won a Gold Medal in the Pan Am Games in 1960 and 1963. He was four time national champion and six time Air Force champion. He served as President of the United States Judo Association. George remained active as a teacher and coach throughout his life. He influenced thousands of US competitors, students, teachers and coaches. He was a model Judo citizen.
George took the lessons of Judo seriously. At his death, many wrote “he never said an unkind word about anyone.” In his work life, he faced the challenge of lack of integrity among his business associates head on. When once asked by a supplier to take a kick back for purchasing the supplier’s product, George refused. Because this was standard operating procedure, George wound up losing his job. He left with his head held high and his integrity. The person who replace him was later convicted of embezzling $60,000 (a lot of money in the 1960s!)
The role George took most seriously was that of teacher. When interviewed shortly before his death, he was asked:
Of all the athletes you’ve trained, who stands out in your mind?
Harris: AnnMarie was a ten year old girl in my judo class back in the early 1970s. Twenty years later she called me. She and her brother had been trying to find me for years. She had a child with a physical disability. She said, “You have been an inspiration to me and my brother for 20 years. Whenever times are tough, I think, what would sensei do, what would sensei say? He would never give up.” She wanted to thank me for giving her a creed to live her life by. I was crying; I couldn’t wait to hang up the phone so I could really sob. You never know the impact you have on people’s lives.
Judo is about falling and getting up. It is about connection and community. It is in the end about taking care of each other in the spirit of “mutual benefit and welfare.” George Harris knew that and lived it. He was a great American Judoka.