Within any industry there are the superstars, those people who you admire, endeavor to learn from and who you dream you will one day meet. When I began my tea blog seven years ago I had already developed a short list of people who fell into that category for me. Some were authors whose books I had devoured. Others were tea educators and tea company owners. Not only have I been fortunate enough to meet some of those amazing people like Jane Pettigrew, Bruce Richardson, Norwood Pratt and Cynthia Gold, but some have also become friends. Now one of those very special tea mentors, John Harney, has left us and today I say goodbye.
I will not tell the story of John Harney and his early years with Harney & Sons. Many have done that today and I will save that for another day. Instead I will tell the story of what he did for someone new to the industry with a passion for tea.
The first time I met John Harney was in September of 2011. My book had just been released and I was attending World Tea East in Philadelphia in the hopes of promoting the book and meeting some of the people who were only email addresses to me so far. I was walking up one of the aisles, admiring Rishi’s striking display of bowls of loose tea and watching the Teas Etc. folk pouring cup after cup of samples. I came to the Harney & Sons booth and took a quick look to see if Michael Harney was there, someone I’d met a few times previously and had recently spoken to about stocking my book at their Millerton shop. To my delight (and, I must admit, utter panic), there sat John Harney on a stool greeting passersby. The first time I walked quickly by, nervous to approach, wondering what I could possibly say. He made it easy. He was being honored that evening at a reception and started yelling out to people that they should be sure to come to the event because he was afraid no one would be there to clap. I took a deep breath and said hello. We ended up spending 15 minutes talking, discussing our kids and his business and my book. On the spot he tripled the number of books the shop was going to order and told my publisher to reach out so they could stock them at Millerton, in SoHo and on their website.
I am honored to say that that was the first of many conversations. It was also the first time he teased me about how much of a mouthful he found my name to be. Any time he called my house he never left a message for “Katrina.” He always used all three of my names and then laughed and laughed.
He was always ready to jump on the phone to be a source for an article. He talked frankly with me about the whims of the industry and the challenges of the business. When I began doing some research for a book project I asked if he’d spend some time talking with me about the history of Harney & Sons. He spent more than an hour talking with me, sharing those early moments, and answering questions. We, as usual, completely lost track of time and I realized that we would have to continue the conversation later. I said, “I’ve just realized how much of your time we’ve taken. It’s been an hour!” He answered, “But I’ve only gotten up to 1980!”
He was always kind and warm, generously sharing his knowledge and his passion for tea. He has had a tremendous impact on the acceptance of and awareness of tea in this country. He has taken risks and been successful in no small part due to his ability to form respectful relationships and to make tea feel accessible and inviting.
The tea industry suffered an enormous loss on June 16 with John Harney’s passing. His legacy will continue through Harney & Sons and all of us who had the great pleasure of meeting him. My deepest sympathies are with his wife, his children and his grandchildren.
John – Thank you for welcoming me into the industry, for being accessible and for the many, many laughs you provided. I must confess that I still have a phone message on my voicemail that you left months ago simply because your voice made me smile. I am grateful for the memories.