John Harlan’s small gestures were always big to those he helped.
The parole and probation officer who supervised mentally ill offenders once ran into a former client. Harlan treated the man to a cup of coffee so he could catch up and see how the man was doing.
Later in the day, someone spotted the man still holding the empty Starbucks cup and offered to throw it away.
“No,” said the man, who has since been civilly committed. “John gave that to me.”
On March 22, Harlan, 53, of La Center, Wash., was killed in a motorcycle accident on Interstate 5 near Ridgefield while riding home at night. Washington State Police said alcohol and foul play were not factors.
In nearly 22 years working in the county’s Department of Community Justice, Harlan developed a passion for working with mentally ill offenders, including some with sex offenses. He listened when others wouldn’t. He helped when others didn’t. Despite his clients’ challenges, Harlan avoided excuses and found ways to improve clients’ lives.
“He models what it is to work with people who are not lovable, but who can be loved, and who have a sickness that we can’t understand,” said Javelin Hardy, a parole and probation officer.
Harlan first joined the Department of Community Justice in 1992 as an on-call community works leader, a position that was quickly made permanent. He became a parole and probation officer in 1994 and most recently worked on the Mental Health Supervision team. He has also worked in other Adult Services Division units, including the Domestic Violence Supervision Team, Family Services Unit, North Supervision Unit, West Office Mental Health/Sex Offender Team, Alternative Sanction Sentencing Program and Intensive Case Management Unit. He served as a lead parole and probation officer, taking on additional responsibility and training other officers in firearms instruction and survival skills.
As news of Harlan’s death spread, friends and colleagues in the Department of Community Justice mourned their loss and remembered Harlan for his commitment to people and to bettering the community.
Tom White, a parole and probation officer, knew Harlan’s work well. The two swapped caseloads when White moved to the Domestic Violence Unit and Harlan took over White’s mentally ill offender clients.
White noted Harlan’s effectiveness with his former clients because they were engaged and checked in when they were supposed to. He even set up a movie night as a non-threatening way to attract clients to the office and connect with them.
“He set these systems up that really made you be honest and really make you work your tail off,” White said. “That was just him raising the bar and saying, ‘This is what it takes sometimes.’”
White, who refers to Harlan as a “kindred spirit in the mental health world,” described the challenges of working with people who were disenfranchised and mentally ill. That includes delivering services to people even when resources aren’t available; working around a person’s criminal history to help them find jobs or housing; and supporting a client who does not have family or friends to lean on.
White said when Harlan spotted gaps in the mental health system, he tried to fill them himself to get clients what they needed: a bed, food, shelter. He also took medication to clients on weekends or took them to appointments.
“John would say ‘No, this person is worth it,’” White said. “That’s where Harlan was very unique. Once he decided a person was worth the effort — that was it. John knew you extend extra effort sometimes just because it’s the right thing to do.”
Harlan’s approach was to first establish rapport with clients. He always had coffee brewing in his office for visitors. If he ran into clients in the streets and they looked hungry, he treated them to a meal on his dime.
“Of course it benefited the client because it’s nice that someone buys them lunch,” said Jolyn Gatto, a parole and probation officer. “But John truly enjoyed that. It almost benefited John more than maybe for the client.”
While the work was challenging, Harlan wasn’t one to complain.
“He viewed it as everyone’s responsibility to be a part of their community and take care of it,” White said. “He’s the type of guy where you could put him on a desert island with 15 people and he’s going to make it great. He’ll say, ‘Don’t ask why we’re here, or why the sun is too hot. Here is where we are, so what are we going to do today.’”
Harlan was known around the Department of Community Justice’s North Office for being a handyman who could fix anything. Some of that came from his service in the U.S. Air Force Reserve where he learned to fix planes, friends said. In addition to building his family’s home in La Center, Harlan also offered his skills to build structures used as targets in firearms training.
While heading to a shooting range last week, Harlan told Gatto, who worked in the North Office with him, that a coworker who lived in East County was having car troubles and was texting him over the weekend for help. Harlan drove down from his Washington home the same day to fix the car.
“The majority of what he did in his adult life was about helping other people,” Gatto said.
Though Harlan didn’t plan to retire for several years, he spoke with coworkers about his dreams for the future. He recently shared some of those plans with Hardy, who also works in the North Office, by saying he wanted to buy apartments for mentally ill offenders who had trouble finding housing.
“He wanted a livable, clean, safe place for clients to live,” Hardy said. “He was saying they deserved better housing.”
Hardy and Harlan often spent time in downtown Portland where many of their clients lived. She said they made an unlikely pair and often caught stares from passersby.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” they’d say. “He was tall, lanky John, and then me, the African-American sister with locs.”
Each had nicknames for each other. Hardy was Brown Sugar. Harlan was Vanilla Ice.
“It was our code to get away whenever things looked like they were about to go down,” Hardy said.
Harlan will be remembered for being a family man who was devoted to his wife, Lisa, their son, Sam, and daughter, Jocelyn. Harlan had a sense of adventure and loved to travel. In 2004, he took a year off from work to sail from Oregon to Mexico then over to Hawaii before returning to the mouth of the Columbia River. The family documented their trip in a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed blog.
In one entry from September 2004, the family wrote about their time stopping in Monterey Bay, Calif. where Harlan was excited to spend time at car show with the original Batmobile and where the family shared space with the sea lions near the marina where there boat was docked.
“Our stay was very enjoyable and we learned to SLOW DOWN our life a bit,” the entry said.
“He loved to be with his family,” Gatto said. “He absolutely adores his children and supports them. He just really enjoyed those moments with his family and children.”
Recently, Travis Gamble, a parole and probation officer, stopped by Harlan’s office to chat. The conversation turned to nature as Harlan recalled a visit to Oneonta Falls and being waist-deep in water. He loved the natural world, as he did people.
“He always found the beauty in things,” Gamble said. “He always looked for the beautiful things in people. He reminded us that we need to connect with people. That’s who he was. He couldn’t fake it if he tried.”
Harlan is survived by his wife, Lisa, son, Sam, and daughter, Jocelyn.
A Celebration of Life ceremony was held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 29 at New Hope Community Church, 11731 S.E. Stevens Rd., Happy Valley.
Steve Duin: John Harlan never stopped believing in possibility, hope and change
It was a great Friday, Carmen Montano remembers, largely because John Harlan volunteered for the pepper spray.
A half-dozen Multnomah County parole and probation officers were wading through training exercises in Sherwood several years back when someone suggested they practice spraying a moving target.
“Of course, John volunteered,” Montano says. She didn’t. She’d tasted pepper spray before. “The most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt.”
They set up a fake altercation. Harlan was doused from five different angles, and never complained. Montano was still laughing about that when she and her boyfriend put her boat in the water late on that Friday afternoon, and set sail for Astoria.
And she was still thinking about Harlan when the boat broke down five miles out on the Columbia River.
“We didn’t have a clue what to do,” Montano admits. Since she’d bought the boat, Harlan, who loved to sail, was unfailing in his instruction on how to survive on the water, but she obviously couldn’t call him.
He’d been soaked in pepper spray. He was at home in La Center, Wash., nursing his wounds. It was already closing in on 8 p.m., and there was no way she could …
“We called him,” Montano says. Then they huddled in the boat, totally forlorn, for the hour it took Harlan to find them. “And seeing him, walking up at dusk …”
Her voice breaks. “That’s the kind of guy he was. He could go through the most horrible day ever, and he would still be there when you needed him.”
Last Saturday was shaping up as one of the better days of John Harlan’s life: the 53-year-old was back on the river, sailing in a regatta with a friend.
But on the way home, Harlan laid his Kawasaki motorcycle down on Interstate 5, just south of Ridgefield, and was struck by another northbound car. He died at the scene.
A passing, I now understand, that hasn’t changed the conversation about the man’s impact on this world, just allowed you and me the privilege of being a part of it.
John Harlan, as Michael Wilson wrote in The Oregonian 14 years ago, always insisted on “the toughest load.” In his 20 years with parole and probation, Harlan took ownership of the mentally ill, the sex offenders, the paranoid, the violent, the lost, the incorrigible.
“John liked challenges,” says Tom White, another parole and probation officer who had extensive experience with the mentally ill. “‘Give me the most difficult cases you have. I’m fearless. I’ll take that on.’ He liked taking that someone people didn’t think was worth it, and proving them wrong.”
Part of it was the man’s sense of adventure. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying? John got busy livin’,” White says. The son of a Portland cop, Harlan and his wife, Lisa, invested a year with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone straight out of college. He spent 27 years in the Air Force Reserve and — when he came off active duty in 2004 — eight months sailing to Mexico and Hawaii with his family on a 38-foot Swan.
But he also had a dominant empathy gene. When a homeless veteran fell apart in a dark corner of Old Town, Harlan could not look away. He did not allow himself pessimism or apathy. He believed even the most damaged people could change.
“He knew he could make an impact,” White said. “‘It may only be one of 10,’ he’d say, ‘but that’s enough to keep me coming back. Because if I’m not going to do it, who will?'”
“He could function around other people’s pain,” Lisa Harlan said, “and not get sucked into it.”
Harlan was a lanky 6-footer and, White said, “not really imposing at all. And that’s good. When you’re dealing with people who are nervous about you, it’s better to be unimposing. Unassuming.”
Unafraid. Chris Whitlow, who trains county officers on defense tactics and survival skills, remembers the day he and Harlan picked up an especially aggressive client at the Multnomah County jail for transport to the hospital, and a sheriff’s deputy said, “Just you two?”
Harlan had a way with the violent and unpredictable. He was not naive. He understood containment. If he had a degree in sociology and a placard that read, “Social Worker with a Badge,” he didn’t discard the bullet-proof vest.
He simply believed he was called to so much more than that.
“In our line of work,” Montano says, “it’s easy to get sick of criminals. It’s really easy to get jaded, to think everyone who walks through the door is horrible and dishonest.
“John never lost his belief in humanity. That’s a lot more work. We don’t have to give them a million chances. We can take them to jail. And that’s a lot easier than taking three hours out of your day to drive over to their house at 9:30 a.m., make sure they’re awake and dressed appropriately, drive them across town to the assessment, buy them coffee and something to eat, and drive them back.
“Most of us won’t do that,” Montano says. “We don’t have the time. We’re always rushing around, cutting corners. He didn’t. He chose the stuff that’s the most important and gave it his all.”
All too often, he had too much on his plate. “He’ll plan 10 things and one will happen,” Lisa said, refusing to let go of the present tense. “That’s tons more than most of us do.”
But John Harlan always took your call, or responded to your distress signal, no matter the hour. Whenever a volunteer was needed, he stepped into the line of fire. On the worst of days. At the darkest hour.
Multnomah County probation officer John Harlan killed in motorcycle crash
John Harlan, a Multnomah County probation officer, was killed in a motorcycle crash on Interstate 5 near Ridgefield during a Saturday night ride.
Harlan, 53, of La Center, Wash., worked with the county’s mentally ill sex offenders unit.
“He was very passionate about his work, worked very hard and really cared about the people he worked with — co-workers and all,” his wife, Lisa Harlan, 51, said Tuesday night in a phone interview from her home. “He tried very hard to do the best he could for the clients as well.” …Continue reading at OregonLive.com
John Harlan, 53, dies after motorcycle crash
A La Center man was killed after crashing his motorcycle on I-5 Saturday night and being hit by a passing car.
John Harlan, 53, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident on the northbound side at Milepost 11 near Ridgefield.
The other driver, a 16-year-old boy from Battle Ground, remained at the scene. Washington State Patrol troopers say he swerved out of his lane to avoid the motorcycle and struck Harlan. He was not cited.
Harlan was wearing a helmet. Two lanes of the freeway were closed for a couple of hours for the investigation after the 9 p.m. crash.