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The final bell

CENTRAL POINT — If a single sound could define the past two decades of athletic events at Crater High School, it'd be the clank of "Big Dwight" Harsh's cowbell.

The 67-year-old Rogue Valley native, who has been rooting for District 6 sporting events since the early 1990s, died Saturday doing what he loved. He'd been ringing his cowbell and cheering for the Scenic Middle School basketball team when he suffered a heart attack and died at the school after the game.

Harsh was born Aug. 22, 1947, and grew up in Central Point schools, becoming one of four Crater High graduates in his family in 1965. He left the valley when he joined the Navy, serving two tours on Midway Island during the Vietnam War, and raised four children.

When he returned home in 1991 to care for his aging mother, Mary Edith Harsh, the city's former "Mrs. Santa Claus,” he began attending all his alma mater’s sporting events.

When his mother died in 2003, Harsh continued his role as a one-man cheering squad for local sports and serving as the local Grange Hall’s Santa Claus, a role his father held during the 1950s alongside Harsh’s mother.

Harsh’s cowbell tradition stemmed from his father's death in 1961. With his mother working full-time as a cook at Central Point Elementary to support her family, Harsh’s own sporting events went without his name being cheered like the other boys.

"When I started watching the games, I felt I would adopt all the kids as my grandkids and I would be there for the ones who didn't have anyone else there to cheer them on,” Harsh told the Mail Tribune in 2008. 

Big-hearted and big in stature, Harsh was often called Crater’s “biggest fan” and “Mr. Crater.” Cathleen Godfrey, Harsh’s sister, said she found comfort that her brother died while doing what he loved.

“The old lump! I know he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I just hope he knows what a huge void he has left in the community and in everyone’s heart,” Godfrey said Monday.

Like dozens of community members, Harsh’s longtime best friend, Skip Algeo, took to Facebook over the weekend to tell tales of the man he met when the two were only 8.

Algeo's  memories ranged from playing in a treehouse and collecting soda bottles to Harsh’s crazy driving and a weeklong camping trip at Diamond Lake when the boys were 16.

Current students posted on the Central Point community Facebook page how they would miss the clanking of the cowbell. Central Point resident Amy Moore, whose sons graduated from Crater nine years apart, said many of her memories included the clanking of the cowbell.

“Dwight has been a part of so many people’s lives for so long. My sons graduated in 2003 and in 2012 and his consistency was amazing to me. There’s not a kid at Crater who didn’t know who he was,” Moore said.

“It’s going to be weird to go to Crater events and not have him be there on Friday nights, ringing his bell, supporting the kids. He just really contributed to my world — to everyone’s world — in ways I don’t think he even realized.”

Harsh’s partner, Nancy Johnson, said her relationship with Harsh evolved from neighbors and fishing buddies to inseparable partners. Even in poor health, Harsh would schedule medical tests and appointments around sporting events.

“Even for away games, if he had to go to Roseburg for medical stuff, he would look and figure out if there was a game he would be able to go to,” Johnson said.

Harsh helped lead music for First Presbyterian Church and volunteered in a number of community efforts, from gleaners and “just helping families in need” to providing music at Thanksgiving for St. Vincent de Paul. Former student Karlie Ilacqua said Harsh left an impression on everyone who heard the clanking of his bell, though in recent years it was banned at indoor games.

“Looking back when you think of football games you can still hear that cowbell. There’s the fans cheering, the band playing and that cowbell ringing above everything else,” she said, noting that Harsh would pass out roses to cheerleaders on senior night each year.

“He really was our biggest fan.”

Godfrey said her brother, who will be buried in his Crater shirt and hat with one of his four cowbells, was best known for his “Harsh humor” and for never meeting a stranger.

“He made a difference in a lot of lives. You truly never know what kind of effect you have on others or how much you touch others by the things that you do,” Godfrey said.

“I feel so sorry for people who don’t make a difference with the time they have here on Earth. Dwight lived the way our parents taught us to. They said to go beyond yourself and serve others. That was who he was.”

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 30, at the Crater High School gymnasium. There will be an open mic for community members to share stories about Harsh. Donations to the family, to help with funeral expenses, can be made at People's Bank in Central Point.

Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Dwight Harsh demonstrated how he rang a cowbell on the sidelines at Crater High School games in this 2008 Mail Tribune file photo.