Dr. James Harrington Jr. kept a piece of Lord of the Rings calligraphy art created by his niece in his Crown Center office. He’s remembered by family and friends as a man who loved larger-than-life fantasy fiction — especially Lord of the Rings — but still enjoyed the simple things in life.
Harrington, who has taught in Loyola’s philosophy department since 2006 and for a time served as director of undergraduate programs, passed away Oct. 29 from injuries sustained in a fall at home, according to a university-wide bereavement notice sent Nov. 3. Harrington, 54, passed away peacefully and surrounded by friends and family, the notice reads.
Patrick Convery, a senior majoring in music and history, said he was in Harrington’s Interdisciplinary Honors Program seminar discussion course his freshman year.
“I was really, really happy to get him [as a professor],” Convery, 21, said. “Once you got to know him, he was a very lovable guy.”
Convery said he was “absolutely gutted” when he heard the news about Harrington.
“The only thing I can say is that when we talked a little bit before and after class … Harrington would pipe in sometimes and it made me feel like this was a professor that I would love to hang with outside of school,” Convery said.
Harrington’s younger sister, Maris Harrington, described Harrington as someone who lived a life of service.
“He has been like a father to my children,” Maris, who’s four years younger than Harrington, said. “He helped me raise them. He was always there for them. … He was always there when I called, and he was like that for anyone.
Growing up, Harrington was involved with Boy Scouts, several service projects and worked with refugee families in high school, his sister told The Phoenix. Harrington has, in more recent years, worked with members of Alcoholics Anonymous and routinely assisted homeless people around the city.
“He was very supportive and active in helping those in recovery, whether it be other adults or students,” Maris said. “That was something he was very committed to. And he was known to go, if somebody was in a problem or had something that he needed, he would go out on the street and help homeless people. He always had a bed for people, he’d help them find housing. He was literally just that kind of person.”
Maris’ daughter and Harrington’s niece Emma Zajdela remembers her uncle as being “extremely intelligent and curious and knowledgeable” while also having “a very simple humanity to him.”
Zajdela has adopted his two cats, Merry and Pippin, named after characters from Lord of the Rings. He also previously had a chocolate lab named Tig, which is short for the Greek mythological character Antigone. Harrington would often bring Tig to office hours so students could talk about philosophy while petting the dog, Zajdela said.
Harrington routinely talked to Zajdela about his plans for future courses, and she said teaching brought him a lot of joy. For example, Zajdela said her uncle developed a course about encountering World War II through the time period’s music.
Owen Fink, a senior majoring in history and communication studies, said he was enrolled in Harrington’s philosophy of science course in the fall of 2018.
“He clearly cared more about the work students put into their work rather than having something on a deadline,” Fink, 21, said. “‘As long as you do quality work, I want you to get something out of this.’ … That was always the goal of his assignments.”
Brendan Reynolds, a 22-year-old senior and history major, echoed similar sentiments about his experience in Harrington’s Philosophy of Time course this semester.
“He seemed very focused on learning above all else, just the pursuit of knowledge,” Reynolds said. “He didn’t let himself be boxed in by ‘We have to hit these topics today.’”
Reynolds said he was shocked when he heard about Harrington’s passing.
“Nobody can teach like Professor Harrington,” Reynolds said.
Loyola philosophy professor Richard Kim, who has taken on one of Professor Harrington’s courses for the remainder of the semester, said he had his “first real conversation” with Harrington about three years ago.
“We ended up getting into an hour-long disagreement about teleology and the philosophy of biology,” Kim wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “He gave forceful arguments against a view I affirmed, and I delighted in this conversation. I came out of it thinking that he must think I’m completely wrong, but the following week he told me that he actually agreed with my view. He clearly thought that I didn’t consider the objections to my view seriously enough, and he was probably right.”
Kim said he developed a real respect for Harrington, especially his intellectual courage, open-mindedness and willingness to be a contrarian.
While Harrington was opinionated — “He was a philosopher at the end of the day,” Zajdela said — his family and colleagues said he wasn’t judgemental of others.
“His door was always open,” Zajdela said. “I think something that’s really gonna be hard, that I’m going to miss about him, is he was not judgemental of people. If people made mistakes, he could see the good in people and he was always going to try to help those people.”
Zajdela said she last saw her uncle at a White Sox World Series game in mid-October. Zajdela and her mother said Harrington was a big White Sox fan and had season tickets, which Maris said was a family joke because she doesn’t like the White Sox. Zajdela said he loved going to the games with her grandpa and siblings.
Zajdela said she thought she would feel her uncle’s absence in the ways he used to help the family, such as picking up groceries.
“But really what I miss is having him there and calling him up to go get coffee,” she said. “Or text him pictures of the cats, or coming to Loyola and not seeing him is super weird.”
Both Zajdela and her mother described Harrington as “quirky.”
“He was very unabashedly himself, I think is a good way to describe it,” Zajdela said of her uncle. “And not obnoxious about it. He was not someone who was a people pleaser or anything like that. He was just who he was, doing his thing and being kind along the way.”