Harmon shows heart for SoKno volunteering

Betsy PickleOur Town Stories, South Knox

Pat Harmon has such a volunteer heart that she was destined to call Tennessee home.

Her community service has included being a volunteer ombudsman for nursing-home residents, a hospice volunteer, a neighborhood-association officer and an election precinct officer.

Pat Harmon during her ombudsman days

She even attended the Citizens Police Academy in 2007.

“I’ve been around and aggravating people for a few years,” says Harmon.

A longtime resident of the South Haven community, Harmon, 83, has scaled back on activities in recent years due to health issues. The coronavirus pandemic has limited her outings to visits to Kroger and Walgreens and taking her dogs on drives. But she stays engaged with neighbors and politics and remains a beacon of optimism to all she meets.

Born in Nashville, she moved to Maryville with her family when she was 15. Her parents worked in civil service at the Nashville airport and were transferred to McGhee Tyson Airport.

The middle child of seven (five girls and two boys), she graduated from Maryville High School in 1955. Harmon says she “married much too young,” ultimately getting a divorce, but she’s proud of her daughter and two sons.

When her children were old enough, she took a job near the riverfront in South Knoxville, at Southern Coffin and Casket Co. on Scottish Pike.

“It was owned by the Staley family from Maryville,” recalls Harmon. “It was a good place to work. We became a family.”

After Batesville Casket Co. bought out the business and the family feeling disappeared, Harmon went to work as a dental assistant for Dr. Richard Harb on Alcoa Highway for several years. Needing to support herself after her divorce, Harmon moved to Atlanta for 10 years and worked for another casket company there. Her positions over time in that industry included office manager and purchasing agent.

Harmon rented out her house in South Haven while she was living in Atlanta. When she retired and returned to Knoxville in 2001, she moved back into her home and got busy as a volunteer.

She became interested in the state’s ombudsman program for the elderly after reading an article in the AARP magazine. She had been conservator for her mother the last three years of her life, and she was familiar with difficulties that seniors face.

Harmon trained under Howard Hinds and earned her certificate on Dec. 12, 2003 (it’s still hanging on a wall in her home). She says of the four women in her training class, “two of us stuck with it.”

Her first and main assignment was Island Home Park Health & Rehab, then called Hillcrest South.

“I think I was under six different administrators while I was at Island Home Park. The last five or six years the administrators were very, very good. The first ones were not all that approachable.”

Harmon’s duty was to help residents and their families with any issues that couldn’t be resolved with the facility’s staff.

“I wasn’t allowed to touch the patient,” she says. “I was not a nurse; I was not a caregiver; I was an advocate for the patient. That’s the definition of ombudsman.”

Island Home Park Neighborhood resident Jim Staub and Pat Harmon join in the opening festivities at Dunkin’ Donuts on Chapman Highway in 2015.

Harmon, who misses “giving hugs,” feels for nursing-home residents and their often-isolated situation during the pandemic.

“One of my close friends had to have some physical therapy at Island Home Park, and her husband went to see her every day and sat outside her window and conversed through the window. I thought that was great that they set it up for her to do that.”

While she was serving as an ombudsman, Harmon also became a volunteer for UT Hospice. Patients were not expected to live more than six months, but one of the first patients she was assigned to lived for three years. She had been taking medication that “messed with her mind,” Harmon says, and once she got off it, she improved.

“We got to where we were really close,” says Harmon. Sadly, with many of her other patients, “I’d visit some one week and they’d pass the next.”

Harmon was an ombudsman for about 12 years and a hospice volunteer about nine. She stepped away from her duties about five years ago.

“It was getting hard for me physically,” she says. But she loved what she did.

“I have a soft place in my heart for old people. I’m getting there myself.”

Harmon joined the South Haven Neighborhood Association in the early days of the group. She started on the bylaws committee and later served as secretary, board member, vice president and president.

“I recommend joining the neighborhood association,” she says. “Some people think it’s political, perhaps, and don’t want to get involved, but if you care about what’s going on in your community, it’s important to get involved. We try to get a consensus.”

She’s enthusiastic about having Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness in her backyard, especially the facilities at Baker Creek Preserve.

“I love it over there,” she says. “I wish they had done it 15 years ago when I could have taken advantage of it. It’ll be a showplace.”

She served as an officer at Precinct 26 at Dogwood Elementary School when Phil Bredesen was governor. She also sometimes helped out during early voting. This year, for the first time, she is voting absentee.

“I’ve always gone to early voting. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t early vote. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”

Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.

Heather Ream, Ben Ream, Linda Rust and Pat Harmon discuss neighborhood business at a meeting at the Roundup Restaurant.

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