Surrounded by family who came from all over the country to celebrate his birthday, Shelby Harris told them thank you after declaring, “This is the most beautiful day of my life.”
That’s quite a statement considering that the Rock Island man turned 110 years old on March 31.
Harris is believed to be the only Quad-City resident to reach what is called supercentenarian status, or at least 110 years old.
His birthday was celebrated a few days early at the Rock Island Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where he moved when he turned 105.
He served actively as a deacon at the Second Baptist Church in Rock Island until he was 102 and credits God for his longevity.
“I still believe there’s something the Lord wants me to do,” Harris said. “I still believe that, but I haven’t got the knowledge to explain what he wants me to do.”
Harris grew up in Ayrshire, a town in southern Indiana, and remembers working in the coal mines of that area until a relative offered him a job as a foundry worker at Union Malleable, which later became a John Deere plant. He has fond memories of his youth in Indiana and said he would like to visit his old family home if he could.
“I would like to do some of the things I used to do,” he said with a smile. “I would like to sit on my old porch — that old long porch we used to have — and look at the trains.”
Harris left in 1942 to serve with the Army during World War II, but he was unable to finish boot camp.
“I left here and went to Durham, N.C.,” he said. “But I broke one of my ankles and it didn’t show up until I was in the Army. When I went out there to march, my feet went to swelling and I couldn’t.”
After leaving the Army, Harris returned to what is now the Quad-Cities, where he has lived ever since.
He remembers voting for John F. Kennedy for president in 1960 and cast his vote for Barack Obama in 2008. Harris said he never thought he’d see an African-American president and expects that a woman being elected president might be the next big breakthrough.
“You might get a woman anytime,” he said. “You see, the women, they got the law in their hands, and whatever they want, you got to go by that. So, if she wants to be president, she’ll be president.”
Harris was visited by his grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren on his birthday. He said he misses his family, but loves it when they are able to visit.
Stacy Hurt, 25, Harris’ great-grandson, said there is a history of longevity in the family.
“It’s pretty cool actually,” Hurt said. “I get a lot of people that ask me questions about it.”
Hurt added he thought it would be neat to live as long as his great-grandfather has, but he noted that the experience has been bittersweet.
“When his daughter passed, it was really hard for him to go through that, and it kind of makes you feel bad,” he said.
Alfred Hurt, 56, is Harris’ youngest grandchild and said he likes to see his grandfather doing so well.
“He takes good care of himself and he has a good memory,” Alfred Hurt added. “So, as long as he can take care of himself, everything will be great for him.”
Ultimately, Harris said, the most important part of his life has been his work as a deacon.
“I wouldn’t swap nothing for it,” he added.