If you believe in such a thing as an old soul, it would help you understand the short life of Harrison (Harry) J. Stout.
There are few people I have known in my lifetime that enjoyed life as much as Harry. It was a rarity not to see him smiling, and he was always ready to help anyone that needed it. He didn't allow fear to come between him and life experiences, and it seemed obvious to most everyone that knew him that he felt fortunate to have the people and surroundings he grew up in. He had a family that loved him unconditionally, great friends and teammates, a dog he adored, and a community of kind people he proudly called home. And the feeling was mutual.
There are so many great stories I could share that would help paint the picture of this one of a kind young man, but there are two that will help define his spirit and character.
Harry was a big kid...weighing in at 11 pounds at birth and by age 12, he was 5' 9" tall and 175 pounds. Harry loved sports and music, and he played football and basketball since he was five. Naturally, he was a lineman on his football teams and primarily played one of the tackle positions. During his 7th grade season, Plainwell Middle School would broadcast announcements in the morning, and often times, they would mention standouts from the game that was played the day before.
One day we were driving home from school (taking him to school and picking him up every day was an amazing privilege I enjoyed for several years)and he was telling me about the announcements from that morning. He went on to say that the players mentioned were the quarterback, the running back, and a receiver, and that no offensive lineman were mentioned. I began sharing my displeasure at the lack of respect the guys in the trenches receive and the school should do things differently. As I was rambling on, I looked over at Harry and saw his signature wide grin and that look in his eye that let you know he knew something you didn't.
"Dad, that's just the way it is. It's the same way in College and the pros...lineman just don't get the same kind of recognition the skill positions do."
I realized later that this entire conversation was a lesson.
He knew exactly what the deal was, and it didn't bother him in the least. It was one of those moments when I realized (and there were many) that Harry "got" life. He knew life wasn't meant to be a struggle, and allowing outside influences to steal his peace just wasn't in his DNA.
The other story takes place during his 3rd grade year at Gilkey Elementary school. Harry shared with his mother and I that he had a classmate whose family was struggling financially. The classmate wasn't a close friend, but Harry recognized how difficult life was for him. He asked his mother if she would take him to the local shoe store, which she did, and there, Harry bought his classmate a pair of new shoes. He used his own money, which was about half of his savings at the time, and then put the shoes in the students locker.
How much he touched and influenced the lives of others became very clear when he passed on suddenly at the age of 12 on November 6th, 2004. He had just spent a day with his family, watching his sister Meryl play soccer at Kalamazoo College. Later that day, he was home with his best friend, when he suddenly collapsed and never regained consciousness.
As you might guess, this event sent our family to a level of sorrow and grief we didn't think possible. It was pain unlike anything I had ever experienced, and it just seemed to grow deeper each day as the unthinkable became reality.
His service was held at the Plainwell Middle School to accommodate the 1,200 people who were shocked and saddened by Harry's passing, and who came to support our family. And that support continued long after the service ended. Our family was touched by the compassion and caring our community gave us...from bringing food to our homes, sharing their cherished memories online, countless cards, and people just stopping by to help in any way they could.
The support and compassion extended to other communities. When Plainwell's basketball team hosted neighboring Otsego, the Otsego girls presented flowers to Harry's sister Allie, and to all of her teammates. It was something I will never forget, and it was the first of what would be many tributes to the life of Harry.
One parent made athletic wristbands that had "Harry" on them and gave them to all the girls on the team, and then other teams, students and parents began wearing them. His 7th grade basketball team wore his initials on their shoes, and the school yearbook was filled with memories and tributes to their lost classmate. Friends of the family purchased a brick at Binder Park Zoo with a caption that read, "Harrison Stout made us smile."
Fast forward five years, in what would have been Harry's senior year. His friends, his teammates, and his classmates let everyone know they would never forget Harry Stout.
The football team gave Harry a locker, and he was in the program. Their helmets bore his initials, and when the team was introduced at home, the first player out carried Harry's jersey onto the field where it stayed by the bench the entire game. On the last game of the year, which was parents night, a full scale dedication took place. His name was on the fence surrounding the field, and the cheerleaders were all wearing his jersey with his name on them.
And when it came time to introduce the players and their parents, the last to be introduced would be Harry's mother and I. As we began our walk, every senior player on the team ran back and walked side by side with us along the edge of the field.
The basketball team wore his initials on their jerseys that season, and at the last game presented our family with his jersey. The team also started an award in Harry's name.
His class recognized him and spoke of him during their graduation ceremony, and purchased a bench in his honor that was placed in the atrium area of the High School. And to my knowledge, there are two other benches, one in Plainwell and one in Florida that are dedicated to him.
There is a Dr. Seuss quote that made little sense to me at the time, but today, it makes all the sense in the world: "Don't cry because it over, smile because it happened."
Anyone that has lost a child will tell you that there is no way they can explain or express the feelings and emotions that control every moment of your life. The tears, the sorrow, the emptiness, the disbelief...they stay with you for a long time. But over time, at least for me, the sorrow morphed into appreciation. Yes, it was only 12 years I got to spend with this amazing human being that was my son, best friend, and little brother all tied up into one, but it was an amazing 12 years. I believe in my heart of hearts that his time here was not intended to be long, that his time here was to teach and provide an example of for us. I know fathers and sons that live full lives who don't speak to each other and have no relationship. I wouldn't trade with them.
Harry's presence in my life was and still is a gift that I will never be ungrateful for. I miss him every day, but in my heart, I know things are exactly as they should be. And his memory and approach to life lives on through the foundation bearing his name.
An old soul indeed.
Harry's Father and Executive Director of Harry's Foundation