Mattituck Fire Department member recognized for 70 years of service

For his 95 birthday, Barney Harris stood at the end of his driveway Thursday night and proudly watched a parade of Mattituck Fire Department trucks, their horns and sirens blaring, pass down his street.

“This is wonderful, really wonderful,” he said as he stood at the end of his driveway waving to each of the trucks. “Thank you all very much!”

The drive-by was in tribute to Mr. Harris’s 70 years as a member of the department as well as his reaching his 95th birthday. On top of his service in the fire department, for more than 30 years he was a member of the Southold Police Department, retiring in 1987.

“My dad always loved being a public servant,” his daughter Susan wrote in a tribute to her father that speaks to his long career, his love of his family, and his years in the U.S. Army after he was drafted in 1944 and sent to the Philippines and later to Japan after the war ended in August 1945 with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One incident in her father’s life she writes in the tribute is more than a footnote in local history: how he saved Albert Einstein from possibly drowning in the Peconic Bay.

History records that Mr. Einstein rented a bungalow on Nassau Point in the early 1940s, from which he wrote a famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to launch what became the American effort to build an atomic bomb. Einstein feared the Germans would build one first.

“The story we heard growing up is that my dad and a couple boys were out on the bay and Einstein was out in a rowboat of some kind,” Susan Harris said in an interview. “And Einstein fell overboard and my dad and the others swam out and saved him. My dad later saw Einstein at Rothman’s store in Southold and knew that was who they saved.”

Mr. Harris was a bit more circumspect when asked about the incident. “I am pretty sure that was who it was,” he said.

Barney Harris outside his Mattituck home for the parade Thursday. (Credit: Steve Wick)

To Ms. Harris, the story of her father possibly saving Mr. Einstein’s life – and the bombing of the two Japanese cities that ended the war with the bombs the scientist urged the president to build – has a ring to it.

“The ending of the war the way it did probably saved my father’s life,” she said. “Certainly he and his troops would have gone on to land on the beaches of Japan.”

The morning after the drive-by, Mr. Harris sat in his comfortable living room and spoke about his long life. He was born to Polish immigrant parents, Peter and Mary Hareza, on a farm in Peconic. The surname was later changed to the more American Harris.

“I was one of seven,” he said. “I am the last of the group, the very last. I went to Southold High School but left after the third year to work on oyster boats out of Greenport. Then, when I turned 18 in 1944, I was drafted into the Army.

“My three brothers, John, Ed and Stan, were in the Navy and that was my first choice. But they stamped ‘Army’ on the papers,” he remembered. Soon he was in Georgia for basic training, then on to California and the Philippines. His units, like so many others, would have been used for the invasion of the Japanese mainland, but the dropping of the two A-bombs ended the war.

“I came home in 1947,” he said. “I got some training and joined the Southold PD in 1949. It had just five members then. I was paid $42 a week. In 1953 to make more money for my family I went to work for I.M. Young selling farming materials. We worked out of the big barn that used to be on Depot Lane in Cutchogue before it burned down.

“In 1956-57 I went back to the police department,” he said. “I was glad to be back. The pay then was about $70 a week.”

He was married in 1952 in Our Lady of Ostrabrama, the Polish Roman Catholic Church on Depot Lane. He and his wife, Clair, had four daughters, one of whom, Bonnie, later died. Clair died in 2012, he said.

He agrees with his daughter Susan that a guardian angel has looked out for him. 

“I had a very interesting life,” he said. “A good life. I enjoyed being a police officer. I think I was a pretty good cop. I did my job. I think that’s something.”