Good to be King
By King Harris
Father’s Day is coming up, and as a tribute to my Dad, who passed on in July 2001, I thought I’d honor him using for the most part, praise from somebody else, one Albert Morch, a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner which published Albert’s story in November 1973.
It seems that Albert, whom I never met, was intrigued by the liberalism displayed by my Dad who tried to survive in a conservative world and eventually got fed up with it. Albert’s narrative was titled, “Why Harris Quit the Establishment.”
“King Harris’ social conscience developed late in life. For 32 years, the 60-year-old former advertising agency owner and executive was enmeshed in the world of power and chrome, chauffeured limousines, plush offices and open-end expense accounts. When he retired in 1967 to try his hand at writing, his social awareness blossomed. (Among his credits: an article for California Living Magazine on the social issues in Seaside).
‘If you don’t know what is real, how can you know what is believable? To do that you have to get away from the corporate womb,’ Harris told me over coffee in the Pebble Beach carriage house, where he and his wife Elizabeth (Reimann), are residing until a new home there is completed. The couple, wed in 1960, has five horses, a pack of dogs and rides several times a week. After handling such accounts as Chevrolet, Proctor & Gamble and Boeing, Harris became a founder and president of Public Interest Communications.
‘Taking no salary, he heads a non-profit agency, funded by foundations and private citizens, which provide advertising expertise to non-wealthy, non-white, non-male and non-privileged causes. ‘Everything we’re doing is against the Establishment. It cost me a few friends, but perhaps they were never friends to begin with,’ said Harris, who is still a member of the elitist Pacific Union Club but has had no problems there. His late father, Lawrence Harris, a founder of the Family Club, was well known here as a storyteller, poet, toastmaster and author of the Damndest Finest Ruins, which dealt with the 1906 fire.
‘King was born in the Washington Street house where his mother, Mrs. Lucy King Harris, once resided. His late uncle, Percy King, was the master of ceremonies for many years at the Cotillion debutante ball. And his grandfather, James King of William who added the ‘of William’ because San Francisco had so many Kings, was a crusading newspaper publisher who was shot to death for exposing the political corruption in the mid-1800s.
‘His death led to the formation of the City’s vigilante committee. A little of that crusading spirit rubbed off on Harris, who while attending Stanford, had dreams of becoming a journalist. In its yearlong operation, PIC has done ads for the Delancey Street Foundation, S.F. Ecology Center, the Wounded Knee Defense Fund and the moratorium on the building of Nuclear Power Plants.
‘Its current project is to tell the other side of the Energy Crisis story — ‘the one not told by the government and the utility and oil companies.’
‘The whole point he believes, is to make the corporate power structure aware that there is more to life than sales. ‘And until we make them aware no change is possible. Advertising has created a false value situation where the poor feel that they can’t be accepted in life unless they have the right can of right underarms spray.’
‘Happily, he says, many of the young of the socially prominent today reject material things for a much broader lifestyle. ‘Being socially acceptable in the right group is less important to them than, let us say, helping the Indians or farm workers.’
‘Harris has four children, three of them by his previous marriage to Elizabeth Freeman Lambie. King Jr. is a drummer in an L.A. rock band, Judy is a clinical psychologist, James is a journalist, and Ann is married to Dr. Richard Merchant of Marin. They are much in favor of how their father is spending his retirement years. ‘It’s nice to discover that being a non-conformist can be a good thing.’”
I must admit that Dad was very successful in the ad biz. When the Giants baseball team came to San Francisco in 1958, Dad made sure one of his clients, Folger’s Coffee, was a major sponsor. Ten years later, he was a step away from going to Campbell-Ewald with the Chevrolet account in New York City.
But he got tired of what he called dealing with the “white-knuckle group,” those advertising clowns who would squeeze the arms of their chairs ‘till their knuckles turned white every time a new, clever, or outrageous idea was mentioned, almost always by my Father.
I can just imagine his conversation with my stepmom when he declared he was going to work for free taking a bag lunch to a non-profit office while living in Pebble Beach. But that’s another story.
To conclude this one, all three of us children Ann, James, and me, became journalists in our own right, the very thing he dreamed about becoming while going to Stanford. How’s that for marketing?