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'Everyone loved Don' - Community members share legacy of former Gainesville First UMC pastor
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Don Harp Jr., left, shows his support for Shaw Carter. Photo courtesy Doug Carter

Although Don Harp Jr., former pastor of Gainesville First United Methodist Church, hasn’t lived in Hall County since 1988, the warmth of his light can still be felt among those he loved.

On Tuesday, April 20, Harp died at 82 years old. 

“He was such a life-changer for so many in this community, even not necessarily members of his church,” Don Carter, who was a close friend of Harp’s, said. “He was loved across the community and so respected. He had that spiritualness about him, that great sense of humor, that kindness. Anytime I walked away from him, I felt better about myself and better about life.”

Harp served as pastor of Gainesville First UMC from the early ‘80s until 1988, then was called to lead at Peachtree Road UMC in Buckhead. He remained at the church until his retirement in the early 2000s. Afterward, he taught part-time in Emory Univesrty’s theology department.

The Methodist pastor also served at St. Andrews UMC in Carrollton, Northwoods UMC in Doraville and Sam Jones UMC in Cartersville.

Before he went to seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory, Harp was recruited to Young Harris College to play baseball under the then-coach, Zell Miller. He later attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was a star baseball player.

Steve Dodson, pastor of Thomson First UMC, said Harp was like an uncle to him during his childhood and a close family friend. 

“Don was a great competitor and had an aspiring baseball career,” Dodson said. “He had the opportunity to play in minor leagues, and decided to pursue a calling to ministry. That was very inspiring to me as a young man.”

Carter describes Harp as one of the “greatest storytellers” he has ever met. And many who have read his old columns in The Times or heard him preach feel the same. 

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Don Harp, right, poses for a photo with Leslie Watkins, left, who used to work for him at Peachtree Road UMC. Photo courtesy Melanie Brasher

“He could take his sermons and weave them in all these life stories and all these humorous stories, and you just were sitting there rolling with laughter,” Carter said. 

In the months leading up until his death, Melanie Brasher, sister of Dodson, said Harp posted stories about special moments in his life, oftentimes typing out the words with one finger.

Carter, Dodson and Brasher shared how those stories rekindled friendships Harp had across Georgia, bringing happiness to many, including themselves. 

“His legacy is all the lives that he touched,” Brasher said. “He was friends with all walks of life regardless of background, religion, status, money.”

Carter said his late son, Shaw, was also close with Harp. Shaw, who was born with a congenital heart disease, underwent a heart transplant in 2014, and Harp showed up at the hospital the day after the surgery. 

When announcing Harp’s arrival, Carter said the nurse commented that she would also like to visit the pastor. Instead of shouting the typical jovial response to Carter and his wife upon seeing them, Harp’s eyes locked on the nurse. It turns out she was someone he spoke with years before who dreamed of becoming a nurse, but didn’t have the money. Through a generous donation from a church member Harp was able to fully fund the woman’s tuition.

“Through his church, this lady became a nurse,” Carter said. “He’s one of those people you look at and say, ‘Gosh, I’m so blessed to have him as a part of my life.’”

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From left to right, Mary Ellen Harp, Juanita Sealy, Juel Sealy and Don Harp share a meal and fellowship. Photo courtesy Melanie Brasher

Donna Shaw of Gainesville, who worked with Harp for two years at Gainesville First UMC, said he truly cared for the congregation and would personally visit members who became hospitalized. 

Shaw added that Harp was the sort of person who always left his door open. Even when he was stressed from work, it stayed ajar. 

“When you started hearing Willie Nelson music, you knew he wanted to be left alone,” Shaw said, humor in her voice. “It wasn’t loud, but that was the clue that he was in that mode.”

Jim Moore said he was a member of Gainesville First UMC when Harp started as pastor in the ‘80s. He shared that his friend grew up on a farm in Inman, Georgia, and loved to fish. Harp even kept a rod at the church in case he had time to fish between services. 

Through the pastor’s efforts, Moore said Harp was able to pull Gainesville First UMC out of a lot of debt and grow membership.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants,’” he said. “All those that came after him (Harp) were standing on his shoulders.”

Alice Paris, longtime friend of Harp, said the man wasn’t just talented at preaching, but had a knack for cooking and a keen palate for wine. She noted that he was particularly fond of cabernet and even collected Silver Oak Cabernet, a line known by many wine connoisseurs. 

“He had many interests in life, and that’s why people just loved him,” Paris said. “Everyone loved Don, and Don loved people. You’d see Don out somewhere, and there was always a crowd around him. They just enjoyed him.”

Harp is survived by his wife Mary Ellen, two children, Allen and Robin, and five grandchildren. 

A graveside burial will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 25, for family and close friends at Inman Cemetery, located at 151 Hills Bridge Road in Fayetteville. 

His celebration of life service will be held 11 a.m. Saturday, May 15, at Peachtree Road UMC. COVID-19 precautions will be in place, and people will be able to view the function via livestream from prumc.org

In lieu of flowers, people can make donations to Young Harris College as a part of the Don Harp Memorial Fund, the baseball program at Huntingdon College or the Don Harp Memorial for Christmas Kindness fund at Peachtree Road UMC.

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