WORTHINGTON — Mike Harmon, a member of the Worthington City Council since 2014 as well as a former Independent School District 518 Board of Education member, died suddenly Thursday morning at his home. He was 79.
The news of Harmon’s passing was met by tributes from city officials and council members alike. A Worthington resident for more than 40 years, Harmon also served on the Worthington Public Utilities Water & Light Commission, as well as the Prairie Justice Center and Center for Active Living boards, along with multiple city council subcommittees.
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle recalled Friday morning that Harmon was elected to his first city council term at the same time he was elected to his initial term as mayor.
“He was probably the most optimistic person we had on council,” Kuhle said. “He had a heart as big as Worthington. He was always looking at how to better this community.”
Kuhle mentioned Harmon’s vocal advocacy for the 10th Avenue bridge near Centennial Park that was completed last year. It became an often-uttered joke during meetings that the bridge deserved to be named the “Mike Harmon Memorial Bridge.”
“We probably wouldn’t have had that bridge if it wasn’t for him,” Kuhle said. “He was probably the biggest dog in that fight.”
Kuhle, who like Harmon was reelected to a second four-year term in 2018, noted that despite Harmon’s age, “he really looked out for the younger people,” noting his support for construction of a spec building that will house a five-screen movie theater.
Kuhle hailed him as “a voice of reason” and like several others, noted Harmon’s quiet and soft-spoken demeanor.
“He was kind of quiet, but when he said something you paid attention to it and respected it,” said Amy Ernst, who was first elected to the city council in 2016 and reelected in 2020. “He was just a very kind and gentle human being. He always had something positive to say every single time you saw the man. He was a big man, but very gentle.”
Ernst sat next to Harmon during city council meetings for four years until the seating was reconfigured in January following the election of new council member, Chris Kielblock. While Ernst was able to interact with Harmon at council, they often saw each other in a different environment.
“He had been subbing in the schools for the past two years as a paraprofessional,” said Ernst, who is District 518’s technology director. “He would talk to me about that almost every time I saw him … what building he was going to be in or had been in and the kids he had worked with.
“He just enjoyed people a lot,” Ernst continued. “Anything he could do to contribute — he just really reached out and touched lives any way he could. I’ll miss him a lot; he was a good presence on the board.”
Chad Cummings was elected to an at-large position on the city council in November 2016. Two years prior, he was narrowly defeated by Harmon in a bid to represent Worthington’s second ward on the council.
“Both of us had been receiving phone calls from friends saying, ‘Hey, have you considered running’ because Scott Nelson didn’t run again because he was moving,” Cummings recalled. “I had just moved back to town and hadn’t been in town for but a few months.”
Cummings discussed running for city council with his wife, Jami, while unbeknownst to him, Harmon was having a similar conversation with his wife, Elena.
“We both went in and filed within an hour of each other,” recalled Cummings, who was quick to point out there was never animosity between the men then or afterward. This was possible even though Harmon was a devoted Chicago Bears football fan, while Cummings supports his backyard Minnesota Vikings.
Cummings also spoke of Harmon’s willingness to let others take the spotlight during a council meeting.
“There were many times we agreed and a lot of times where I may have been a little more vocal … and later MIke would say, ‘I knew we were on the same page, but I figured I’d let you go with it,’” Cummings said.
The recent change in seating was also brought up by Cummings, as both now are positioned near City Administrator Steve Robinson.
“Mike actually leaned over to me during the last council meeting and said, ‘Well, they’ve got the big guys over here now. We must be bodyguards for the administrator or something,” Cummings noted with a chuckle. “The biggest thing I can think of when I think of Mike Harmon is just a big old teddy bear. He was a good, conservative-minded man, but just very open and a big old softie.”
Alan Oberloh, a former Worthington mayor and city council member, noted in a post on Facebook that he served on both the city council and District 518 board with Harmon.
“Mike was a soft-spoken man who was most often the calming voice in crucial times in public service,” Oberloh wrote.
Harmon may have teamed with Cummings to protect Robinson around the council table, but Robinson was also grateful for Harmon’s service and wisdom as an elected official.
“He’s certainly going to be missed,” Robinson said. “I had the honor to work for him for the past six years and really enjoyed his counsel and insight. He was always a trusted resource on council and did a wonderful job representing his constituents.”
Robinson noted Harmon’s agriculture background — Harmon was a one-time owner of Nutri-Pro Feeds — and cited his experience in assisting with farmland leases and other related matters. He also mentioned Harmon’s strong support for the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System project while serving on the Water & Light Commission.
“His kindness was something that came through all the time,” Robinson said. “He was a joy; he was always jovial. It’s going to be quite a loss for the council for a while.”
Scott Hain, manager of Worthington Public Utilities, expressed his gratitude for Harmon’s willingness to travel to St. Paul to lobby for Lewis & Clark, as well as his repeated participation in public events of energy-related organizations. He noted that Harmon and wife Elena both served on the Water & Light Commission at different times, and that he had a keen interest in public utility matters.
“He was very engaged … and was always willing to help out when it was needed,” Hain said.
The city council will likely address filling Harmon’s seat sometime later this month, though it won’t do so immediately out of respect for both Harmon and the position.
Worthington’s city charter gives the council the ability to fill the vacancy by appointment. That person would then serve the remainder of Harmon’s term, which expires in November 2022.