But at 69, Harrison’s also one of Southwest Georgia’s last true Renaissance men. At any given time, if he’s not at work, you might find Harrison beating the drum for one of the seven veterans groups he’s a part of, or literally beating a tribal drum as part of a Native American heritage demonstration.
Of course, you might also catch Harrison playing his guitar and singing one of the 200 or so original songs he’s written over the years, a skill that got him a “back-door entrance” into Georgia’s Music Hall of Fame.
He calls himself “semi-retired” now, but you wouldn’t know it by the quality work he still turns out on a regular basis.
“That’s Leo’s work, right?” James Kelly, a tradesman who works for a local construction crew, said as he eyed a newly built fireplace. “I can always tell his jobs. The guy’s what, 70 years old, and he still does the work men half his age can’t do. And it’s always quality work.”
Harrison has made one concession to age: He doesn’t tool around on his 2001 Harley Sportster like he used to. But he’s still the go-getter, the organizer, the hard worker who’s earned the respect and admiration of those who know him.
Born in the “hollers” of Jackson County, Ky., in 1942, Harrison attended a one-room schoolhouse in the community until his Pentecostal preacher father moved the family into a parsonage in larger London, Ky. But young Leo’s wanderlust hit before he even finished high school, and he coerced his parents into signing for him to join the U.S. Army at age 17.
Harrison completed basic training at Fort Knox and was shipped to Fort Gordon in Georgia for military police training. As a 19-year-old “buck sergeant,” Harrison was in charge of a group that guarded missile silos near Shreveport, La., before being shipped to Pousan in South Korea.
During his 10-year stay in the Army, Harrison served in Korea, Germany and Vietnam, opting out as an E-6 because of a “deteriorating marriage.” When he returned to the States in 1969, he was stunned by the reaction of American citizens.
“When I came back from Vietnam, my uniform looked like a Christmas tree (because of an abundance of medals),” Harrison said. “But because of the attitude of the people I encountered, I ended up hiding that uniform until 1988. I wasn’t spit on, but I was chased by a man with a broom in San Francisco.
“We were warriors, soldiers, and we were sent to do a job. We did our job. But some of the people up the ladder screwed things up for us Vietnam veterans.”
Harrison never really mentioned his military service to others until the “Moving Wall” Vietnam memorial came to the area in ‘88. From visiting that monument, he became involved with the Veterans of the Vietnam War organization, for which he is now the commander of Post 1.
Sensing a change in the attitude of Americans toward vets, he became an advocate for his brothers in arms. He founded four service organizations and is now or has been commander of three others.
After leaving the Army, Harrison came through Albany to visit his brother in 1971 and decided the job market in Southwest Georgia was much more favorable than the one in Kentucky hill country. When he applied for three jobs on the first day that he decided to stay in Albany and was offered all three, he knew he’d made the right choice.
He took a construction job and was recruited by South Georgia Brick officials as a fireplace installer. It proved to be his calling.
“When I wasn’t working, I read everything on the subject I could find,” Harrison said. “It wasn’t too long that I figured I knew more about it than the people who were in charge of inspecting such jobs.
“Today there are a lot of what I call ‘dinosaur fireplaces’ in the area. They’re deteriorating, especially the inner lining of the flue system, and have become accidents waiting to happen. I found a regular brick fireplace last week (during an inspection) that had a crack on the interior of the heat chamber from the ground to 6 or 8 feet high. That’s dangerous.”
Many school-age children of various generations in the region know Harrison as the “Indian guy” who has talked about Native American heritage and history at a number of school functions. He found out about his Cherokee blood through his sister-in-law’s research.
“I was a ‘pale-face’ until I was 50 years old,” Harrison jokes. “I had no idea of my heritage. But my brother’s wife was researching scholarship opportunities, and she found out she qualified for an American Indian scholarship program. It turns out our great-grandfather Tip Hughes had sneaked out of the Indian territories in the 1860s and came to the hills of Kentucky, where he met my great-grandmother.
“Our family has kept that part of our life a secret; in fact, my mom went to her grave with the attitude of ‘don’t tell anyone you’re part Indian.”
Harrison, of course, ignored his mother’s warning and embraced his Native American heritage. He’s now the commander of the Cherokee Indians of Georgia Inc.’s marshal division, an honorary position that gives him full law enforcement authority over members of the organization.
“We meet for a couple of events a year, the most important being the annual relighting of the council fire during the last week of the year,” he said.
Harrison grew up in a musical family, so it was only natural that he would pick up a handy guitar and learn to play. He performs regularly now at nursing homes, assisted living facilities and at both the Georgia State Fair and the state’s International Fair.
“I’ll take those elderly folks back 40 or 50 years, back to when they were in their 20s and 30s,” Harrison said. “I know all those old songs that they remember.”
Harrison also played regularly and was a member of the board of directors of the weekly Pelham Country Jamboree, which got him his back-door entrance into the state’s Music Hall of Fame.
“The jamboree founder, Roy Street, put together a 15-minute display of performances that ran on a loop at the Hall of Fame,” Harrison said. “I was one of the performers that he taped, so I got into the hall through the back door.”
With all he has going on, and no desire to slow down any time soon, Harrison remains one of those rare individuals who turns the amazing into the routine. He plans to “work until I’m 87,” but he’ll always make time for his seven grandchildren, especially 9-year-old Kolton Damerow.
“That’s my heart,” Harrison says. “He knows when he asks me anything, I won’t give no for an answer.”
When it comes to stone masonry craftsmanship, speaking out on veterans’ issues, honoring Native American heritage or belting out a tune or two in his Marty Robbins-like voice, Leo Harrison usually doesn’t have very many no’s in his arsenal of answers either. And a lot of his friends and admirers are better for it.