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Widener Dedicates James T. Harris III Hall with Portrait and Praise

Former President James T. Harris III returned to Widener Dec. 15 for the dedication of a residence hall named in his honor and the unveiling of his portrait which was painted by world-renowned artist Nelson Shanks. 

After unveiling on Monday his portrait painted by world-renowned artist Nelson Shanks, former Widener University President James T. Harris III quipped that 300 years from now, the painting would be hanging in a gallery somewhere with the title, “Man in a Blue Gown.”

Though Harris’ name may not carry the same gravitas on the world stage as Shanks, his legacy at Widener is cemented in the transformative change he brought to the university in his 13 years as president, topped by the dedication on Monday of James T. Harris III Hall.

Harris, now president at the University of San Diego, unveiled the portrait with Shanks’ widow, Leona. Shanks, who is known for his portraits of Princess Diana, Nelson Mandella, Pope John Paul II, and Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan among others, died of cancer in August as he was in the process of completing the portrait of Harris.

According to Leona, her husband had decided a couple of years ago not to paint any more portraits outside of those of family and friends, when he was approached by family friend Richard Rossello, a colleague of Harris’ on the World Presidents Organization, who asked if Shanks would paint Harris’ portrait.

“Nelson decided to paint one more portrait,” Leona said. The two families became fast friends during Harris’ sittings for the portrait. “The honor became ours. We were dazzled by Jim’s insights into humanity.”

The portrait hangs in the hallway on the first floor of Old Main, along with the portraits of all of the institution’s past presidents.

The impact of Harris’ presidency can be seen throughout the campus. General John H. Tilelli Jr., chair of the Widener Board of Trustees, said Harris Hall will serve as a reminder of Harris’ lasting contributions to the university and the city of Chester. Tilelli pointed to the change in the landscape of the campus, with the addition of Metropolitan Hall, Founders Hall, Freedom Hall, the Wellness Center, and the Kirkbride addition.

“More importantly, Jim Harris changed the culture of the university,” he said. “He changed the reputation of the university.”

Nicole Gilette ’16, president of the Student Government Association, explained the sentiment of students in their request to name the residence hall in honor of Harris, calling him a “president of and for the students.” Fellow student Nicole Stark ’18, who lives in Harris Hall, said the building has “far exceeded the expectations of students.” 

Though the new residence hall was named for Harris at the request of students and with the full support of the Board of Trustees, Harris had his own surprise to thank those who contributed to the success of the university under his tenure. Harris requested that plaques – 63 in total – be placed at the entrance to each room in the residence hall in honor of individual members of the Office of the President, the Executive Team, the Senior Leadership Team, winners of the Eckard Awards, and others who were instrumental in the completion of Harris Hall.

Ellen Madison, who serves as an administrative assistant for the Office of the President and has worked at Widener for 18 years, was completely surprised to learn that her name was on one of the plaques. “I was shocked. I started crying,” Madison said. “It was so touching. Jim always thinks of others. It comes from his heart.”