RUSS HARRIS could have written about anything. He chose to write about horse racing. He could have been great at anything. He chose to be great at handicapping horse races. He could have retired quietly after a distinguished career in newspapers, including the Inquirer, New York Daily News and Miami Herald. He chose to go to Lehigh to study for his doctorate in American history. He got it - at 75.
Harris, who lived for years in St. David's, died Tuesday at a Bryn Mawr assisted-living facility. He was 93.
If Harris wasn't the greatest public handicapper who ever lived, that honor would go to his son, Craig Donnelly, who picked winners for the Inquirer from 1971 to 2008.
Russ, a World War II veteran, was nothing if not competitive and exacting.
Years ago, Craig had the flu and could not make his picks for The Inquirer. His father volunteered to switch his normal picks around and make Craig's picks as well. Naturally, he had five winners that day at what was then known as Keystone in Bensalem.
Harris looked around at his friends in the press box and said, "Look at this guy. I pick five winners for him yesterday and he doesn't even say a word, doesn't even thank me."
Donnelly said the first thing that came to his mind.
"Trying to thank you is like trying to kiss a bear."
Henceforth, Russ Harris became "The Bear" to his family.
"We were in the backyard in Miami one time and he said, 'We're going to race,' " Donnelly remembered. "He killed himself and he beat me in a head bob. He was down on the ground, huffing and puffing and he said, 'I . . . will . . . never . . . race . . . you . . . again."
Craig was around 10. It was their last race.
Harris had three other degrees from NYU, Akron and Kent State. where he also pitched for the baseball team. He was such a good righthander that he might have been a major league prospect had World WarII not intervened.
"He went over on the QE II, but he couldn't swim," Donnelly said. "He was worried about German torpedoes."
He was in the Signal Corps in England during D-Day and, not long after, worked his way through France, Belgium and into Germany, where he ended up guarding German prisoners as the war came to an end.
Harris is a member of the Greater Akron Baseball Hall of Fame. He once lost a state baseball championship game, 3-1, but always told Craig that loss came with an asterisk. He was pitching on no days' rest, having pitched and won the day before.
"He wanted to kill everybody who came to the plate," Donnelly said.
Harris covered the golden age of American horse racing in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when the sport had such one-word legends as Swaps, Nashua, Damascus, Secretariat and Affirmed. He took his writing seriously, but his selections were legendary.
"They kept score in the paper and he took it very seriously," Donnelly said. "They had a selectors' box and had maybe six different handicappers in the box. They had unlimited space for horse racing back then."
Harris picked every winner one incredible day at Belmont Park.
"I was in the room (Tuesday), he had a little plaque, 'The Only Handicapper to ever go 9-for-9 at Belmont,' " Donnelly said.
Craig picked every winner one day at Delaware Park, but said, "When you do it at Delaware on a Wednesday in July, nobody knows."
You do it at Belmont Park, everybody knows.
Nobody who read about horse racing or followed it or was desperate to have some success at the betting windows was unaware of Russ Harris. His was a legendary name in the sport and he is a member of the Media Roll of Honor at the National Museum or Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Harris' birthday was April 9, which just happened to be the date on which Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, a coincidence with which the historian was not unfamiliar.
In pursuit of his Lehigh doctorate, Harris would drive with his wife from the Main Line to Bethlehem one or two days a week to attend classes.
"He was so driven; he wasn't touchy-feely," Donnelly said. "All my brothers and sisters are lawyers. Every one of them got scholarships. They're all motivated and driven. You succeed and you win. That was his thing."
Donnelly said he felt some of that pressure when writing a story or picking a big race, almost "like he was on my shoulder," just a reminder to consider every possibility.
That was Russ Harris, a man who considered everything and lived his life that way, from baseball, to war, to the racetrack and to history.
In addition to Donnelly, Harris is survived by sons Stephen and Michael and daughter Janine.