Tom Harris thought he would work at UF for two years when he signed on as an accountant for the Health Science Center in 1971. Having recently returned to his hometown and alma mater after serving in the U.S. Army, Harris had other ideas.
He wanted to be a banker.
It never happened. Instead, Harris moved up the administrative ranks, eventually becoming the HSC’s associate vice president for administration, a position he held until his retirement June 30.
“It was a match made in heaven,” said Harris of his 39 years at UF. “I like working with people, and I liked finance, so I got to do both. Plus, I got to stay at my alma mater.”
Sitting in his temporary office in the Medical Sciences Building — just a few doors down from the office where he interviewed for that accounting job — Harris gives short answers when talking about his accomplishments. The reason? To Harris, the job has never been about him, but about how he can help other people, be it a vice president or a secretary.
About 11 years ago, when an organizational change left employees without jobs, Harris worked to make sure most staff members found work, remembers Dennis Hines, an associate director for medical/health administration.
“I was one of them,” Hines said. “Tom was instrumental in helping place people and finding jobs for people. I ended up working directly for Tom.
“He is the quintessential diplomat and gentleman. He has helped so many people professionally at the HSC. I can think of a dozen off the top of my head.”
In his leadership roles not only in the HSC, but also in the College of Medicine — he served as an assistant and then associate dean in the college from 1989 to 2007 — Harris has been involved in making many tough decisions. His reaction was almost always the same: People first, said Jerry Kidney, a former assistant vice president for health affairs.
“It’s not to say he does not care about the institution, he does, but Tom always takes the extra step to make sure those people get taken care of, that they aren’t left out on the street without a job,” Kidney said. “Some people might say ‘So long, have a good life.’ Not Tom. He is people-conscious to the nth degree.”
People-focused and modest. Last year, when he first met David Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., Harris showed the new senior vice president for health affairs a binder filled with sections detailing all the people who reported to him.
“It basically comprised the whole administration of the Health Science Center,” said Guzick at the celebration held to honor Harris in June. “That is a lot of responsibility. A lot of people at other places would puff out their chests … Tom’s attitude is he is here to provide a service and advance the mission of UF and the HSC.”
Harris also has coached people along the way. Hines, who came to UF after serving in the military, learned the art of diplomacy from Harris, a necessity to accomplish goals in the university.
They were lessons Harris learned from one of his earliest mentors — his mother, who worked for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for 50 years.
“She taught me all the rules and regs and how to do everything,” Harris said.
Of course, Harris’ time as a Gator started long before he got the job in 1971. Born in Gainesville, Harris grew up two blocks north of the university. Back then, the HSC was an untouched field and UF’s much smaller campus was his playground. By the time he was a teenager, he got his “real” start at UF, picking corn and peanuts on an IFAS farm.
After high school, he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at UF, earning his master’s of business administration in 1968.
“When I was in school here, there was only like 18,000 students and that was considered big,” Harris said. “I remember walking to Gator Growl when it was free and football games cost $2.”
Now, with his official career at UF coming to a close, Harris hopes to get more involved in local charities — specifically those supporting breast cancer, which his wife, Claudia, faced, and diabetes. But his association with the university is far from over. His son is still a student here and he might still teach — he had a business course in the College of Medicine. And after all, once a Gator, always a Gator.
“The institution has been very good to me and I have tried to be good to it in return … It all boils down to the people,” Harris said. “That is what I will miss, the people.”