Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

January 7, 2016
The Legend of Sterling Harris

Football coach’s journey of bridging the gap between Tooele’s New Town and Old Town now documented 

Author Chad Parker wrote a book about Sterling Harris titled “Sterling Bridge.”

Author Chad Parker wrote a book about Sterling Harris titled “Sterling Bridge.”

There are a few blocks of Broadway Street in Tooele City that look like a ghost town.

While a few thriving businesses have found a way to survive, the majority of the storefronts in what was once known as Tooele’s New Town appear empty and abandoned.

Chad Robert Parker, an author who works in the BYU library, has found a way to tell the story of New Town — and the man who found a way to overcome prejudice and pride and joined a divided community.

Based on the life of Sterling Harris, Parker’s historical novel “Sterling Bridge” tells the story of New Town through the eyes of a young football player.

New Town’s roots go back to 1908, when the Anaconda Corporation built a copper smelter four miles east of Vine and Main streets in Tooele.

Prior to this time, most of the families in Tooele County were Mormon pioneers who farmed or ranched.

Anaconda company executives formed a corporation that bought property on Tooele City’s east side with plans to develop a community that could house the workers for the smelter.

Eventually, 50 blocks of what was known as Plat C of Tooele City was transformed into New Town.

New Town had homes, stores, and its own school to support smelter workers and their families.

When the local supply of laborers was unable to fill the demand for workers, Anaconda imported laborers from Europe.

Within New Town, there were three major groups of immigrants: Italians, Greek, and Yugoslavs.

Cultural, language, and religious differences divided Tooele City.

According to the “History of Tooele County, Volume II,” the natives of Tooele referred to the immigrants as Wop, Diego and Hunkies. There was considerable resentment of this by the immigrants.

Parker tells the tale of the two towns and the coach that brought them together using the narration of Joe Lacey.

Lacey, like the other characters in “Sterling Bridge,” was a real person. He was a member of the Tooele High School football team and lived in New Town.

Lacey’s character in Parker’s book recounts his reluctance to cross town to attend school.

The New Town School only went up to eighth grade. The few New Town kids who wanted to attend high school had to “cross worlds” to attend school in Old Town.

Lacey tells a story of a rock fight on Vine Street one night between the boys of Old Town and New Town.

Later that night, the New Town boys are run out of a community dance.

A graduate and an all-conference football player from Utah State University, Harris taught and coached at North Cache High School before he came to Tooele in 1926.

Described by those who knew him as a tall man and larger than life, Harris was reportedly charismatic, had a commanding presence, and was not afraid to speak his mind.

Harris’ plan to integrate the two sides of town was met with initial opposition from the school board.

Some community leaders from Old Town suggested that New Town should be formed into their own independent town so they wouldn’t have to let the smelter kids attend the Old Town’s school, according to Parker’s book.

Harris visited the homes of the New Town kids and got to know their families.

Through the voice of Lacey, Parker tells a touching story of Harris arriving at the home of one his players just as the town doctor pulls the sheet over the face of a boy who passed away after his appendix burst.

Harris helps the crying father to his feet and puts his arm around the surviving son as they grieve together.

The novel tells how Harris intertwined himself in the lives of his players, going beyond the football field to influence their lives.

Producing three state championship teams helped Harris’ efforts to win over the adults on both sides of town.

In 1933, after the third state championship, the late Alex Dunn, then publisher of the Transcript Bulletin wrote: “Harris has done more for the adolescent youth of Tooele in teaching them ideals and true sportsmanship than any other man who has been in our city in the past generation.”

Harris taught and coached for 11 years. He left education for a time and worked as the personnel director at the Tooele Smelter.

While working at the smelter, he helped youth to get summer jobs at the refinery.

He returned to education and served as superintendent of the Tooele County School District for 25 years, retiring at the age of 65.

Harris continued to live in Tooele. He passed away in the Tooele Valley Nursing Home in 1992 at the age of 93, six months after being honored by the state Legislature for his work in uniting the two halves of Tooele.

In an editorial following his death, the Transcript Bulletin wrote: “He (Harris) is considered by many as the man who single-handedly united Tooele back in the days of the smelter.”

In 1953, while Harris was still serving as superintendent, the Tooele County School District Board of Directors honored him by passing a resolution that named their newest elementary school on First Street in Tooele City, Sterling R. Harris Elementary.

Parker, who studied English at Brigham Young University, came across the story of Harris while studying how to write historical film novels.

Looking for a subject for a novel, one of his professors, Dennis Packard, referred Parker to an emeritus faculty member, Don Norton.

Norton had come across the Sterling Harris story while doing family history research. He shared his research with Parker.

Parker did additional research on Harris, including viewing Transcript Bulletin articles from 1926 to 1933.

He also interviewed Sterling Harris’ son, John.

In 2000, Parker started writing about Harris for a school project. But he graduated in 2003 without finishing the book.

“I kind of sat it down for a while,” Parker said. “The story was so powerful, I thought I was (in) over my head as a college student.”

He returned to BYU three years ago to work in the library and by stroke of fate, Parker ran into Packard.

“He wanted to know how the book was coming along,” Parker said. “And I knew I had to finish it.”

Parker refers to Harris as a hero in a timeless tale of overcoming differences.

“His story applies very much to today,” Parker said. “Harris was known as a bridge builder because he treated everybody the same. He didn’t care where you were from, what your religion was, or what language you spoke. He found common ground and made friends.”

Tim Gillie

Staff Writer at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Tim covers education, Tooele City government, business, real estate, politics and the state Legislature. He became a journalist after a long career as an executive with the Boy Scouts of America. Tim is a native of Washington state and a graduate of Central Washington University.

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