Alumnus leaves behind legacy of generosity


Jack Harkins and his wife Connie

Elizabeth Harkins-Meade’s fondest memories of her father take place in East Port on Lake Michigan where he expressed his love for sailing and taught the craft to Meade and her siblings.

While on the lake, Harkins would purposefully tip his Sunfish sailboat to see if his children could correct it. Meade said she and her siblings learned to flip the Sunfish by steering it directly into the wind where it corrected itself.

“It was a great metaphor for life,” Meade said, pausing to take a deep breath. “It taught us to be prepared-- if you get in trouble, how are you going to get out of trouble”

Central Michigan University and the Mount Pleasant community lost a beloved friend after John “Jack” Harkins died on Jan. 28. 

Harkins started his life-long residency in Mount Pleasant after being born to Richard and Eileen Harkins July 14, 1939. 

Meade described her father as “generous in time, friendship and finances.”

“My dad just absolutely loved people ... when he met someone, he wanted to know everything about those people and asked them all sorts of questions,” she said. “Once he got to know you, he would give anything -- anything to you.” 

Toward the end of Harkins life, Director of CMU’s Museum of Cultural and Modern History Jay Martin sat down with his close friend to discuss the events that shaped his life.

In the interview, Harkins said he considered himself “a lucky guy” to have a chance to graduate from CMU after making mistakes with his education at Miami University of Ohio. While at the university, Harkins neglected to study or do any necessary work. He was asked to leave.

After coming home to Mount Pleasant, Harkins applied to CMU and was originally turned away. He got a second chance after President Charles Anspach visited with Harkins' mentors and grew increasingly certain of his abilities as a student. 

Harkins was proud to be one of “Charlie’s boys” — a group young of men Anspach believed held great promise if encouraged to succeed, Martin said.

“My father told me to think of university as a job ... just average forty hours a week,” Harkins said, crediting much of his success to the wisdom of his father.

Meade said CMU gave her father his whole life by launching his career and allowing him to meet a woman by the name of Constance “Connie” Matthews, whom he married after graduating.

While at CMU, Harkins began to work at Lease Management — an oil company in Mount Pleasant. Harkins later became a co-owner and the president of the oil company. 

Harkins never took the chance he was given for granted and ingrained in his children the life lesson he had learned, Meade said.

“He told us when we were kids to always show up before everyone else, work harder than everyone else and give more than you receive,” Meade said. “We live that.”

Harkins is remembered by the stories he told with a smile on his face and the multitude of family, friends and acquaintances that were once upon a time susceptible to his charm and charity.

Contributions to the community

Harkins donated 13 different grants totaling over $100,000 to the Mount Pleasant community through the Harkins Family Fund, which he created in honor of his late wife, Connie, in 2010. 

Harkins believed he owed much of his success to his mentors in the Mount Pleasant community, said Director of the Mount Pleasant Community Foundation Amanda Schafer. 

Through the Harkins Family Fund, Harkins donated to the McLaren Central Michigan Emergency Department, Community Compassion Network, Hospice of Central Michigan, Habitat for Humanity and the Mount Pleasant Public Schools Education Foundation to name a few.

Harkins improved Potter Park in Mount Pleasant by upgrading the playground. Schafer said the neighborhood surrounding the park was important to him.

Harkins drove by the park often, Meade said. The “Potter Gift” was really about helping kids in the neighborhood.

CMU’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History

Through the family fund, Harkins was able to support projects and programs at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, cultivating his interest in history and teaching, Martin said

Harkins most treasured donation of time and expenses was his Curious Curators Program, Martin said. The program will continue to allow late elementary students who show an interest in museum studies a day to curate items and build their own exhibits. 

The last Curious Curators Program Harkins had the privilege of attending was in summer 2018. Martin said this was the happiest he had ever seen Harkins. 

At the event, Harkins was able to congratulate young museum curators with certificates and his “beautiful, natural smile,” Martin said. In return, the children played one-stringed instruments they learned to make and play for Harkins as he sat in the front row grinning. 

Harkins funded the K-12 Free School Busing Initiative, which continues to give deserving but financially-challenged school groups a chance to visit the museum. 

During the summer, Harkins’s Museum Internship Award is used to pay for two to eight students’ living expenses, so they can intern at any museum around the world. Martin said the award has enabled students to curate at museums in the Alaska, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland and South Africa among others.  

Harkins was enthusiastic about advocating for things that captured his interests and wanted to assist others just as he had been assisted, Martin said. 

“He really liked it when what he supported went on to help others,” Martin said. “If he could help multiple groups at once, he loved that.” 

The Harkins family on vacation in Florida in summer 2018.

Harkins is preceded in death by his parents Richard and Eileen Harkins and his wife, Constance. He is survived by his children Elizabeth Meade of Falls Church, Virginia, Christia Hitesman of Mount Prospect, Illinois, John Harkins of Savannah, Georgia and his sister, Ann Walker of Lake City. 

He leaves behind his partner of eight years Cheryl Bennett and her children Bill Bennett, Jeff Bennett, Leanne Carey and Dan Bennett. 

He will be missed by his grandchildren as well: Constance, Paul, Louise and Marianne Meade; William, Bennett and Elizabeth Hitesman; Kes, Elle and RaVell Bennett; Abby and Maggie Carey; Grayson and Graham Bennett; and Sawyer and Sutton Bennett.