By Ray Paulick
I've known Thoroughbred owner and breeder Charles E. Harris, a recently retired New York venture capitalist, for the better part of 20 years. We've had some extended conversations about the horse industry over dinner or at the races, traded emails back and forth, and I even had the opportunity to publish his insightful commentaries on a couple of occasions while I was editor of the Blood-Horse magazine.
But it wasn't until the last 15 months that I really began to understand Charlie, and my appreciation for his personal integrity, his intelligence, courage and wit have grown with each passing month.
Charlie, you see, was diagnosed in March 2009 with colon cancer, less than three months after retiring as chairman of Harris & Harris, the publicly traded investment company he founded. His oncologist told him at the outset the cancer was incurable but treatable, largely because Harris was a “young 66.” Cancer treatment, as many know, can be as cruel as the disease itself.
A very private person, but one with countless friends and associates from around the world, Charlie decided to do a very un-private thing: keep an online diary about his post-diagnosis experiences, and about his life. He calls it: “Updates and Various Vignettes, Observations, Thoughts, Theories, Queries, Musings, Meditations.”
When he first wrote to me about the blog, he asked that I not publicize its existence, that it was really intended to serve as a convenient way for him and wife Susan to communicate with friends about his condition. But then, as he wrote more and more, it became a way for him to fight the isolationism and depression that can strike at many people with a terminal disease. But he still wanted it to remain shielded from the public eye.
“I concluded that depression was simply a luxury that I could not afford,” he wrote on April 27, 2009. “These are brave words, from a person who is not brave. I do not know how I will handle what is coming.”
He's handled it well, not surprising at all to the friends who have long admired him. So well, in fact, that the online diary he's kept was brought to the attention of editors at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, the publishing arm of a cancer research center in New York. Last week, Charlie signed a deal with the company to publish his writings in a book entitled: “Incurable: A Life After Diagnosis…” Typical of Charlie, 100% of any profits from the book will go to cancer research, something he and Susan already are supporting in hopes that future patients will have a greater chance of survival. The book will be published this fall.
Throughout Charlie's 15 months of chronicling his life after diagnosis, he has often quoted from “Man's Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl's 1946 book about life in a Nazi concentration camp. Harris wrote last week that the “overarching motif” of his own book “is captured by Viktor Frankl's observation that … ' Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms– to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.'”
I wrote to Charlie last week, not knowing about his pending book deal, with a request that he consider allowing me to publish one of his most recent articles, entitled “A Good Trade,” written the week before the Kentucky Derby and reflecting on the injury to pre-race favorite Eskendereya. It was one of many installments he's written about his experiences in the Thoroughbred world. Its conclusion was particularly compelling and I felt expressed the views of so many people in racing: “If I had never owned and bred racehorses, my net worth would be higher,” he wrote. “But I would have had less pleasure in life. Most important, it has been a family activity. I made a good trade.”
That article is one of nearly 250 blog entries Charlie has written since beginning this journey. He's chronicled some of the inevitable setbacks from the disease and the difficult treatments he's undergone, but he has not allowed that to deter him from making the most of his limited number of days left on this earth. It comes through in so much of what he has written that it is really more a celebration of a life well lived.
In an email reply, Charlie gave me permission to republish “A Good Trade,” which can be read here. “You're good to go,” he wrote.
But then he added, “Now that I am going to do a book, you may as well give the blog address too, if you think it might be of interest to anyone. Privacy doesn't seem so important to me nowadays.”
To learn what is important to Charlie Harris, visit his online diary here (the web address is http://charlesharrisnyc.blogspot.com) . If you're anything like me, it will give you a much greater appreciation for life.
Copyright © 2010, Ray Paulick
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