In Remembrance: Grandpa Harry had a thousand grandkids

Harry John McDermott was really just a kid a heart — which made "Grandpa Harry" a much beloved character and role model to hundreds of kindergarten and first-grade students at Taft Elementary School in Boise.

McDermott, a volunteer with the Foster Grandparent program for nearly 20 years, recently moved to Florida to be with family. He died Jan. 12 in St. Petersburg at age 84. Whether it was working with children on math and reading skills, sharing a funny story or just being a good listener, McDermott valued the time spent with his young charges.

"Harry provided a positive role model, particularly to many children who may have been lacking a father or grandfather in their lives. He came to my class one day a week and listened to the children read," said Sandra Haines, who meet McDermott in 1989 when she began teaching at Taft.

"Even though his eyesight was failing, he would sit with one child at a time and listen. If they got stuck on a word, he would have them spell it, then he would tell them what it was, and they would go on from there," Haines said.

In 2005, Taft calculated McDermott had logged in about 20,000 hours, giving more than 1,000 kids one-on-one attention. He continued to volunteer at Taft up until his health began to fail in recent months.

"He truly was a grandpa to hundreds of children who loved to read to him, work on their addition skills or just talk to him, telling him their deepest thoughts and feelings," said Rhonda Gibson, a librarian at Taft. "In remembrance of Harry, I would ask that others do as Harry did — give of yourself, then go buy some Krispy Kremes and share them with a friend."

In recognition of his volunteer service at schools in Boise and Meridian, McDermott received a President's Council on Service and Civic Participation award.

"Harry meant so much to so many. He was a faithful grandpa volunteer to many school children and was loved by all of them," said Betty Maxey, a retired teacher from Taft.

McDermott developed a special bond with one young student at Taft named Dani — a relationship he treasured, but that also tortured him.

Dani had a terminal brain tumor and would often talk to "Grandpa Harry" about life, death and other interests they shared, according to school staff.

"It was obvious to staff and classmates that theirs was a unique friendship. After Dani passed away, it was too sad for Harry to come back into my classroom again. She has been waiting more than eight years, but she can now walk hand-in-hand with Harry again," Haines said. "Taft school has lost a great citizen, and I have lost a great friend, but his impact will live on in the lives of the students that he has touched."

In Remembrance is a weekly profile of a local resident who has recently died. Contact Boise news assistant Stephanie Eddy at seddy@idahostatesman.com or 377-6481.