Buford Harbin, security guard for more than 17 years at St. Mary’s Episcopal School and Church of the Holy Communion, got a hero’s reception Thursday when the entire campus stood and cheered as he walked down the aisle in a surprise chapel in honor of his retirement.
As he passed each row, the applause and cheers grew louder, reverberating to the domed ceiling, as the girls of St. Mary’s celebrated the humble man whose work uniform always includes a neon vest with reflector tape and who for years has made the campus golf cart his portable classroom and counseling office.
“And you may think that Buford’s is a solitary job—just him in that golf cart,” said Albert Throckmorton, head of school. “But if you’ve talked with him more than once, you know that there are always three other people him: The father - Buford always points up; the Son - Buford often says, “Jesus is so good to us;” and the Holy Spirit - this is when he warns you than he may have to start preaching.”
When a girl gets sick at school, Harbin gets a call on his cellphone, and in minutes, he is at the door to ferry her to a car across the campus. Barely an employee at the church hasn’t been invited to hop in the cart and be driven to the door or car, a privilege because it’s an honor to have a few quiet minutes with Harbin, the straight-talking disciple who never misses a chance to say, “Have a blessed day.”
Or alternately, as Throckmorton pointed out, “Have a blessed day, you hear?”
Throckmorton presented Harbin, 78, with St. Mary’s Lizzie Apple Award, created in 2014 by senior Lizzie Apple to honor teachers who touch students’ lives with a passion for their subject matter and compassion for their lives.
“In creating this award, Lizzie and I specifically talked about the meaning of teacher as an adult who teaches through their example,” Throckmorton said, adding that Harbin’s lessons are “personal, encouraging and humble.”
His name is engraved on the permanent plaque that hangs outside the school office.
Harbin’s lessons are grounded in his unfettered faith and confidence in the goodness of people, all made in the image of their creator.
“He’s knows us,” Harbin told the gathering, including his wife of nearly 60 years, Dorothy, and other family seated in the front pew. “We think he don’t, but he do.”
Harbin is retiring in early June, telling dozens of well-wishers on Thursday that it’s time to go home and spend time with Dorothy, whom, he says, has waited long enough to have him around full-time.
Harbin worked 37 years at Kellogg’s, starting on the loading dock during segregation when black employees had to eat in separate area from white employees and use separate bathrooms.
“Oh, yes, that mess was everywhere,” Harbin says.
When he retired from Kellogg, he wasn’t intending to get another job.
“Only God saw fit for me to move in another direction,” Harbin says.
He started in 2000 at St. Mary’s as a contract security officer. In 2001, the school hired him itself and put him on its payroll.
Since then, he’s been short of a legend on the church-school campus, often the first at work in the morning, switching on lights, starting the coffee and greeting employees and students - and their parents too - as they stream into the parking lot.
“He may be the first person who asks, “How’s your day going?” And he is one of those rare people who wants and waits to hear your answer. He is often the last person you see as you leave the parking lot,” Throckmorton said.
On the church side, the outpouring of affection was apparent last fall when Harbin’s brother, L.F. Harbin, needed repairs to his home, a project originally slated for the church’s youth and young adults.
More than a dozen members came, carrying supplies to winterize the South Memphis home and make other repairs.
Beverly Russell stopped to visit with L.F., telling him how much the congregation loves his brother.
“Do you know how your brother ends every conversation he has with us? He says, ‘You have a blessed day.’ Do you know you what a neat thing that is? I feel so blessed for knowing him.”
The church is planning its own farewell, likely early in the fall, to honor Harbin and his family, said the Reverend Sandy Webb.
“We want to put some time into the planning.”