The plain yellow doorway to the Harris Insurance building in Old Town Manassas is set at a slight angle to Center Street. It faces the red-brick exteriors of Opera House Gourmet and the Whimsical Gallery gift shop. Opera Alley separates the buildings and leads to an art studio, upscale apartments and a quaint patio.
Five years ago, that same doorway faced a downtown in disrepair. The buildings were burned out, abandoned and neglected; the alley between them was cluttered with trash.
Five years ago, downtown Manassas had 33 vacant storefronts. It was dying.
Yesterday, Loy E. Harris, the man who turned a crumbling downtown into a revitalized Old Town, died of cancer at 57. He left a legacy in mortar and brick.
"Loy was an entrepreneur who put his capital where his heart was," said longtime friend Mike Vanderpool, a Manassas attorney. "Anytime you look at a downtown area that is revitalized, someone had to commit his time, reputation and capital to make it happen. That man for the City of Manassas was Loy Harris."
The self-educated owner of Harris Insurance, fueled by a burning passion for opera and Manassas, had a vision of a downtown that would be home to fine food and the fine arts at a time when no one believed upscale retail could make money in Manassas. Sure of his vision, Harris bought a burned-out two-story building that had once staged operas on its second floor. He bought two more buildings and became president of Historic Manassas Inc. He poured most of his money and all of his time into renovating downtown.
"While a lot of people were lighting matches, no one got a fire to start that could rekindle the economic base of downtown," said Roger Snyder, director of community development in Manassas. "Through energy and persuasiveness, he was able to fan the flames. He didn't form committees that sat around for years. He set short deadlines and met them. He understood that it is not how many matches you use but how you lay the fire, and he was the one to provide the oxygen."
Harris grew up in southwest Virginia and was raised by his grandmother after both his parents died in a car crash. In high school, Harris developed his budding interest in music by playing the tuba.
After high school, Harris joined the military. While stationed at Vint Hill Farms, he developed his life's other great passion: Manassas.
He moved to Manassas and worked in the insurance industry, eventually buying his own agency. Harris was known for his close relationship with his employees and his high standards for their work.
For years, Harris was offered a position on the board of directors of Historic Manassas, an organization aimed at revitalizing Old Town, and for years he declined, saying he wasn't ready.
Finally, in 1995, he became president of an organization that had fallen into heavy debt. His first act as president was to go to the City Council and ask that it commit matching funds if he was able to raise $60,000. The council agreed, and Harris raised the money in three months.
"While he had a respect for what Manassas had been, he had a very clear vision of what it could be," Vanderpool said. "He understood that Old Town provides an anchor and a sense of community to the entire western half of Prince William County, and that if you allowed that core to slip away, you were going to lose something that was unique about this portion of Virginia.
"A lot of people have ideas. A small handful can translate those ideas into action. And fewer still can propel that action to consummate a vision. Loy has achieved his vision," Vanderpool said.
Thirty-one of the 33 storefronts vacant in 1995 are filled now. And next year, one of Harris's last projects will come to fruition--the ice rink and pavilion at City Square. It will be called the Loy E. Harris Pavilion.
Throughout his life, Harris exhibit a near-compulsive passion for his hobbies.
As president of Historic Manassas, Harris dedicated almost all his time to the organization, leaving his insurance agency to be run largely by others. He read everything written about Old Town.
A decade ago, a passing interest in Spanish language and culture led him to purchase "How to Learn Spanish in 10 Easy Lessons." That turned into four years of college Spanish courses and a 1994 degree from George Mason University in Hispanic Insurance Agency Studies, an interdisciplinary major he devised. Through the rest of his life Harris traveled through Mexico and South America and became known for going to local Mexican restaurants to talk to the servers in Spanish.
And an impulse buy of a burgundy Honda Goldwing motorcycle ended in his biking to every state capital in the continental United States.
"He would always pride himself in driving the black roads on the map; instead of the superhighways, he took the small roads through small-town America," said David Flack, a friend who took over for Harris as president of Historic Manassas last year. "He talked about riding his motorcycle when he had a troubled mind or needed to make an important business decision. He would ride the roads and listen to opera music and would feel a calm come over him."
A highly public and visible man known for his sense of humor and humility--he was fond of saying "Aw, shucks, I'm just a country boy insurance agent"--Harris used his motorcycle and music to capture the peace he needed to define his vision for Manassas.
"On a pretty day or a quiet Sunday morning, Loy would sit under a tree in the meadow on the edge of town and listen to opera," said friend Woody Merchant. "He said it was a tranquil thing to do."
Harris is survived by his wife, Lu Wyer Harris, and three children, Duane, Terri and Ken. The family will receive friends from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at Price Funeral Home, 9609 Center St., Manassas. Services will be held there at 11 a.m. Saturday. The interment will be private.
Expressions of sympathy in flowers or contributions in memory of Loy E. Harris may be sent to: Hospice of Northern Virginia, Prince William Region, 13168 Centerpoint Way, Woodbridge, Va. 22193.