On Wednesday, former lead interpreter Harper Harris appealed the museum’s decision to fire him after 15 years at a hearing before Kennesaw Municipal Court Judge Philip Taylor. The museum alleges that Harris did not meet its performance standards.
During the nearly three-hour appeal hearing at City Hall, Harris, dressed in a vest and cowboy boots, said he’d rarely had a bad performance review until museum Executive Director Dr. Richard Banz and Director of Operations Dena Bush began writing him up in the past two years over a series of alleged mistakes.
He was informed in a May 17 letter that he was immediately terminated.
“I was really surprised because I thought I had been doing a good job in evaluations and stuff,” testified Harris, 59. “I felt like I was just being railroaded out.”
Harper said he was appealing to get his job back.
After the famed “The General” locomotive at the center of its collection, Harris was perhaps the most recognizable figure at the museum. With his trademark goatee and long hair, he often greeted visitors in period costumes, gave tours and participated in various Civil War-related events in and outside the city. He also appeared as an extra in about 20 films and TV productions.
The Sprayberry High School graduate’s relationship with the museum began as a teenage volunteer when the present museum was nothing more than an old cotton gin. In the early 1970s, he was there when “The General” was rolled into the museum and watched as it was expanded in the mid-90s.
The city of Kennesaw owns the museum.
In 1997, Harris began formally working for the museum after being employed by Cobb EMC and briefly working as a collector in the city’s water department. Though he had no college education, Harris said he gained his passion and knowledge of the Civil War era through study and as a longtime re-enactor, which had impressed museum leadership.
He was paid $23.50 per hour and received benefits as one of nine full-time city employees at the museum.
But that wasn’t enough to keep him at the museum, whose leaders heaped a large amount of paperwork onto his job duties to take advantage of his lack of administrative experience, argued Howard Evans, his Dunwoody attorney. He asserted that Harris’ popularity was a cause of jealousy among his superiors.
“In relation to Mr. Harris’ primary function and duties, the (performance improvement plan) goes off-track and attacks reportedly his administrative and educational weaknesses,” Evans said.
“The evidence could be inferred that because Mr. Harris was the face, heart and soul of the museum, there was personal jealously. This is a personal termination. It’s not one where the circumstances of performance warrant termination.”
But Jamie Wingler, the city’s attorney, presented a series of examples of what he described as deficiencies that led Banz and Bush to place Harris on a 90-day performance improvement plan back in February and ultimately fire him for a lack of improvement.
Among those charges, which Harris refuted, were frequent tardiness and absences, difficulty filing paperwork, mismanaging programs, placing a racially offensive noose at his desk, making sexual comments to a visitor breastfeeding, having pornography on his office computer, leaving weapons unattended and insubordination, particularly related to women such as Bush, his immediate supervisor.
In April 2010, Banz was hired as director of education and promoted eight months later to executive director of the museum. He testified and was cross-examined for an hour about his decision to fire Harris, whom he credited with being personable with visitors, but lacked the professionalism required of a museum employee.
“Mr. Harris felt that he did not need to report to a supervisor,” Banz recalled of a meeting last December. “I was advised by Jeff Drobney, the previous executive director, that there had been a problem with Mr. Harris and female supervisors dating back to 2004.”
Though Bush — who was hired in October — admitted under cross-examination that Harris received many letters of praise from visitors, she also testified she had difficulty working with him because he failed to sufficiently improve after negative performance reviews.
Evans called three witnesses to testify on behalf of Harris, including former museum employee Jeanetta Jones, who testified she also had problems with Bush; former Cobb deputy police chief Bully Mull, who said Harris was a museum asset who didn’t deserve to be fired; and Kennesaw Museum Foundation trustee David Burns.
“My biggest issue is that I’ve known Harper for a long time and I’ve seen his heart, desire and love for The General,” said Burn, who shared two stories of Harris’ devotion to his job.
“You have a man who is so passionate about the museum, so passionate that the museum put his name on The General store in the education center. To my knowledge, he’s the only individual staff member that’s in the movie. If you Google Harper Harris, you will see his name six or seven times and picture receiving the Kennesaw Heritage Award.”
Founded in 1998, the foundation provides support and funding for the programs and exhibitions of the museum. Paul Chastain, president of the 35-member foundation board, declined to comment on the matter when asked by the Journal.
In his closing statement, Wingler said that Harris simply refused to live up to the expectations placed on him by the city, though given multiple opportunities to improve.
“It’s interesting that he thought the PIP was put in place for him to be terminated and had all these fears about being terminated, yet it appears that he spent more time talking to people about his situation than actually doing the paperwork that was required of him,” Wingler said.
Judge Taylor said he will issue his opinion in the matter within seven days.