The Alaska Railroad paid tribute to a longtime engineer by hosting a small COVID-19 vaccine clinic in his memory Tuesday morning in the lobby of its Anchorage office building.
The David Harris Memorial Vaccination Clinic offered the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to railroad employees and their families. Harris, who had worked at Alaska Railroad for 30 years, died in September after a long hospitalization due to COVID-19. He was 60.
“I think it’s a beautiful way to celebrate him,” said Diana Moor, Harris’s stepdaughter.
A close friend and co-worker said Harris wasn’t vaccinated, but expressed regret about his decision.
“He wanted to go out and spread the word to get people vaccinated,” said Marty Weatherell, a conductor who worked with Harris for decades. “That was what he told me he was going to do when he got out of the hospital.”
Moor described Harris as shirt-off-his-back generous, and having kindness she could see in his eyes. “You could talk to him and you felt like he was always listening,” she said.
Her three sons, who referred to Harris as Papa Dave, enjoyed riding the train while he was working. She described a picture of him hanging on to the train as it pulled into Whittier as her favorite photo of him.
“It was just really cool to see him in action,” she said. “He was very proud of the railroad.”
Weatherell considered Harris an excellent engineer and a close friend. The two worked together often because both had accumulated similar seniority and chose the same schedule, he said. Both started their careers as brakemen, he said.
Each summer, Harris worked on the whistle stop route to Spencer Glacier and enjoyed talking with tourists, Weatherell said. His friend had firm beliefs, but was also warmhearted and didn’t hold grudges, he said.
“Dave could be outspoken if he had his opinions, but he was always polite and cordial,” Weatherell said. “He always made sure to let you know, even if he didn’t agree with you, that it wasn’t personal.”
The two men disagreed on matters of the pandemic since its early days, including about whether there was a pandemic at all.
“He’d always be cordial and go, ‘You know Marty, I don’t agree with you on this, but don’t get upset with me,’” Weatherell said. “...I was like, ‘Well Dave, I do think some of this is political, but on the same side of it I do think most of it is real.’”
“We went round and round,” he said.
Weatherell said Harris was concerned about the safety of vaccines once they became available because he considered them unproven.
“He was adamant that he wasn’t going to get vaccinated,” Weatherell said.
Both Moor and Weatherell said Harris had been hospitalized for days before they realized he had been admitted to Providence Alaska Medical Center because of the coronavirus. When Weatherell eventually did connect, Harris had been improving and was moved out of the ICU.
“I thought he was going to be okay,” Weatherell said.
Then, the two of them spoke daily. He said Harris described the doctors and nurses that cared for him as angels, even though they were stressed with their workload. “There’s so many people in here,” Weatherell recalled Harris saying.
Weatherell said Harris told him he was wrong about the vaccine and that he wished he had gotten it. Harris said that his experience was one he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. He planned to tell his story to railroad colleagues when he had the chance, according to Weatherell.
“He goes, ‘When I get out, I want to tell everybody I can to get vaccinated. Please get vaccinated,’ Weatherell said.
“He said he was just going to go down to the lunchroom and talk to people, because we have so many people at the railroad who still are hesitant to get vaccinated, and tell them what he went through…,” he said. “It’s just sad that he didn’t get the chance to do that.”
Moor recalled an “emotional rollercoaster” as Harris had both good days and bad while hospitalized. She said her stepfather didn’t lose hope. He told her he looked at a photo of her three sons often.
“They are his everything. He mentioned several times while in the hospital that they kept him going,” she said.
During her last conversations before he returned to the ICU, Harris said he felt great. “The sun was shining, he said. He looked out his window and it was a beautiful day.”
In September, Weatherell lost touch with his friend once again. Because Harris couldn’t have visitors, he called the hospital to inquire. When he was transferred to Harris’s room, his friend sounded much different.
“He sounded really down and like he couldn’t breathe,” he said. Weatherell did his best cheer him up. “He’s like, ‘Marty, it’s nobody’s fault but mine. I didn’t get vaccinated. I should’ve got vaccinated. Don’t be upset.’”
Moor said Harris was placed on a ventilator. He died on September 25. He had been hospitalized at Providence for 37 days. His survivors include his ex-wife, Dawn Beardsley, with whom he remained close friends, as well as two step-children and three step-grandchildren, Moor said. He had been planning to retire soon, she said.
The loss still feels unreal, Weatherell said, perhaps because the two only spoke by phone since Harris first fell ill. He described Harris as the kind of friend who would call just to check in, or to say, “Hey man, I love you, man. I just want to let you know that.’”
Weatherell said he’s left wondering if there’s anything he could have said to change the outcome.
“He knew I was going to wrestle with this,” Weatherell said.
Weatherell said Tuesday’s vaccine clinic, proposed by Alaska Railroad’s human resources department, was a fitting tribute, even though vaccination remains a touchy subject among railroaders. Some are skeptical that they would get severely ill.
“The main thing I encountered was people would try to say that he had preexisting conditions and all this stuff, and I said ‘He didn’t. He was in good health,’” Weatherell said.
“We still have a lot of folks down there that are still saying they’re not going to get vaccinated. It’s a battle trying to convince them that it’s not going to be harmful to their health,” Weatherell said. Harris’s death might have changed some minds.
“I think there has been guys that were on the fence about getting vaccinated who decided to do it after Dave passed away,” he said.
Alaska Railroad spokesperson Tim Sullivan said 377 of its 691 employees are fully vaccinated, about 55 percent. Last month, the railroad announced, then quickly rescinded, a vaccine mandate.
On Tuesday morning, flakes of frost drifted in the air as clouds hung low over the railyard along Ship Creek. Starting at 8 a.m., a two-person team from Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services set up in the lobby of the railroad office building on East Ship Creek Avenue. Some employees in heavy duty high-visibility workwear and others in office attire rolled up their sleeves.
Twenty people received COVID-19 vaccine doses during the 3-hour clinic, according to Beacon’s Josh Milam.
Outside, the horn of an engine sounded nearby. That’s something that will always call Harris to mind for Moor.
“When I think of the railroad, I think of him,” she said.