Midlands-area elected officials and others are remembering longtime Lexington County coroner Harry O. Harman as a friend to individuals and the community.
The 79-year-old Harman, who served as Lexington County’s coroner since 1977, died Friday. The cause of death was not stated. Under state law, the governor must appoint a qualified replacement to serve until the next general election.
Harman is credited for his compassionate approach and sensitivity in helping countless families navigate some of the most difficult times of their lives.
“He is one of the greatest guys to ever work with,” said 11th Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers, who was elected the same year as Harman and called him one of his closest friends.
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“I’ve never known anyone to say a harsh word about Harry Harman,” Myers added. “He was one of the greatest when it came to dealing with people in any situation. I think he was born with it. He was just a natural. It’s one tremendous loss for Lexington County.”
Harman was first elected coroner in 1976 and was the state’s first Republican coroner since Reconstruction. When he took office, the Lexington County coroner’s office investigated approximately 180 deaths that year. By 2010, the number had increased to 1,482 calls.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts called his Lexington counterpart “a good friend” and said despite his having served in the role more than three decades, Harman pushed for improvements in professionalism, education and training in coroner’s offices across the state.
“He truly cared about people. He cared about all the people he served,” Watts said. “He’s going to be missed.”
Harman is credited for helping the county develop a comprehensive record-keeping system, countywide disaster plan, disaster response team and 24-hour pathologist availability.
In 1961, he started Harman Funeral Home, which became Caughman-Harman Funeral Home in 1966. As a licensed embalmer and funeral director, he spent nearly 50 years counseling bereaved families. He eventually sold his interest in the business but remained on as consultant.
Lexington County Sheriff James Metts said he was among the first to urge Harman to enter the coroner’s race years ago.
“He was knowledgeable about death. He knew how to deal with people,” Metts said. “But Harry was very compassionate and caring, and I thought he’d make a tremendous coroner for the county.”
Metts said Harman had worked closely with the sheriff’s department on several cases through the years and said his professionalism was complimented by a servant’s heart. The sheriff noted, in particular, several fundraisers Harman had held in his home for various community organizations including the museum and the library as well as for a long line of political candidates.
“I’m going to greatly miss him, and the citizens of this county are really going to miss his services,” Metts said.
Harman fended off several challengers through the years, but one of his most contentious races was in 2012, when he squared off against Frank Barron III, who had served as Richland County’s coroner for 23 years.
During the campaign, Barron expressed concerns about Harman’s health after the coroner had back surgery and had to undergo therapy at Lexington Extended Care. Barron also questioned the credentials of some of Harman’s staff at the time and criticized Harman’s relationship with the funeral home he once owned.
Barron argued then that Harman’s campaign also had taken shots at his record through supporters who were bringing up old controversies. Those include his past personal financial problems and a 1989 fatal car crash that killed two teenagers who were leaving a party at his Richland County farm.
Harman claimed more than 70 percent of the vote in the race to win another term easily. “He always had challengers, and he always won big,” Metts said.
In 2013, Harman spent months recovering and in physical therapy after his car struck a parked tractor-trailer in fog near Columbia Metropolitan Airport in February. He was driving home from a funeral visitation at Southland Memorial Gardens when the accident took place.
Harman was a lifelong Lexington County resident and a member of St. Stephens Lutheran Church, where he had served as a church councilman.
He was a longtime member of the Lexington County Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club, South Carolina Coroner’s Association, South Carolina Law Enforcement Association and the Lexington County Law Enforcement Association. He was past president of the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association and State Board of Funeral Service.
He was a past member of the Lexington Jaycees and recipient of their “Young Man of the Year” award and was a past member of the Lowman Home Board of Directors as well as other civic groups.
Harman graduated from Lexington High School in 1954, attended Newberry College and graduated from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science in 1959.
He attended Homicide Investigation School at Greenville Technical College; a crime-scene investigation seminar in Atlanta; a forensic pathology seminar at MUSC; an advanced forensics seminar at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control; and coroner’s training classes at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
Caughman-Harman Funeral Home said arrangements are expected to be announced this weekend.
Staff writer Chris Winston contributed.