Carlton “Corky” Harmon is shown with his wife Betty at a past Mardi Gras parade. Harmon has been named The Record Newspapers 2016 Person of the Year. 

Dave Rogers

For The Record

John Cash Smith used to eat breakfast at the Old Orange Cafe and recalls the morning his regular waitress announced she was leaving her apron behind.

“She said, ‘I’ve been going to Lamar (Orange) and I just finished and I’ve got my operator’s certificate and I got a job at Mobil in Beaumont for $28 an hour,” Smith recalled.

“She said, ‘Nobody in our family’s ever done this before. You just can’t imagine what this is going to do for our family. Now I’m going to send my husband through (Lamar-Orange).’

“I sat there and said, ‘Yes. This is what this is all about.’ This school is a life changer.”

But Carlton “Corky” Harmon knew that all along.

The sixth-generation descendant of Orange’s first Anglo settler has, in a major way, been a life changer in Orange for much of his 88 years.

Co-owner for half a century of Orange’s longest-held automobile dealership (Harmon Chevrolet sold to Al Granger in 2008) and one of Orange’s biggest civic boosters ever, Harmon has been a backer of Lamar State College-Orange since before the two-year school first opened its doors in 1969.

He helped establish the LSC-O Foundation in 1983 and served as its chairman until recently, growing it from $300,000 in assets to more than $5 million at present, money used to endow scholarships and to jump-start campus expansion.

Smith, who has been on the Foundation board for 20-plus years, is replacing Harmon as Foundation chairman.

What better time to salute Orange’s No. 1 salesman as the Record Newspapers’ Person of the Year?

“He’s been a part of this institution since it started in 1969,” acknowledged Dr. J. Michael Shahan, president of Lamar State College-Orange for the past 22 years.

“No one has been a more loyal or dedicated supporter of Lamar State College-Orange than Corky Harmon.”

Smith goes back to Harmon’s vision.

“Early on, he saw that the school could be a tremendous asset to Orange and he’s been a booster of it from the very, very beginning,” Smith said.

“And then he got kind of known as Lamar’s main citizen booster. And that’s what he’s been.

“It’s been remarkable for him being there that long. And the truth of the matter is, I really give him a tremendous amount of the credit for the Foundation being the size it is and responsible for the help they’ve given to this school, which is now self-sustaining.

“It’s just fantastic what it’s done for the town.”

Count Roy Dunn among those not surprised by Harmon’s penchant for helping.

“My father bought me a car from Corky’s father (Ovie Harmon, Jr.) in 1950, which I traded in for a 1953 Buick in 1954 and financed,” said the publisher of the Record Newspapers.

“I got two months behind on my payments and Corky, who was working in collections then, came to my job and got my car. But instead of repossessing it, he put my car into storage until I got my next paycheck and could make my payments.

“That meant so much to me. I needed that car for my job.”

John Harmon, the family patriarch in Texas, came to Orange in 1828 and is recognized by historians as Orange’s first white settler.

“He came over from Louisiana on a raft with a wife, two boys, a girl and a cow,” said Dunn. “One of the boys went into the wagon and buggy business in 1880.

“They were true pioneers. They’ve been selling transportation for 150 years.”

The business included a famous maker of the well-known Harmon Saddle. In 1896, Charles S. Harmon established Harmon Saddle Shop in Hankamer, midway between Beaumont and Houston. Charles’ son operated the business until the 1970s.

After a tour in Korea in the early 50s, Corky joined brothers Jackie and Don and father Ovie at the OK Corral used car dealership on Green Avenue. Glenn Oliver later became a partner with Don and Corky in the new car dealership.

Since selling that Chevrolet dealership to Granger in 2008, Corky Harmon has sold pre-owned cars and trucks under the banner of Harmon-Oliver Enterprises with Oliver, son David Harmon and nephew Donnie Harmon.

“Everybody needs transportation,” David Harmon said. “That’s what Dad’s always saying: Nobody likes to walk.”

Along with transportation, the Harmons of Orange were prominent in the land business, reportedly owning most of he property between the Sabine and Neches Rivers at one time or another in the past two centuries.

That has worked to the advantage of Orange’s college.

“I would describe him as a walking encyclopedia of property in the downtown area, who owns it, the history of the property,” Shahan, the LSC-O president, said.

Already a successful business owner, Harmon was a driving force in bringing college courses to Orange as an extension of Lamar Beaumont.

The first classes for what was then called Lamar-Orange were held at the abandoned Tilley Elementary School in the Riverside Addition built to accommodate the many workers involved with shipbuilding and U.S. Naval activity at the Port of Orange in the 1940s and 1950s.

Many referred to the college’s first home in Orange as “Tilley Tech.”

Then, in 1971, that building burned. Harmon led a community drive to raise the money to purchase the college’s first building on Front Street.

“The old part of Orange was built in the 30s, and it was kind of crumbling. And they had torn down a lot of stuff,” said David Harmon, Corky’s son.

“When Tilley Tech burned, it gave Dad the opportunity to trade and buy a lot of properties. It kind of brought back the original area, where the downtown and city was, instead of leaving it all in decay.

“He made his living here in Orange. He was born and raised here and he wanted to give back to his community. He knew a lot of influential people and got them all together.

“It (the school) is very nice and dad’s very proud of his efforts with Lamar-Orange.”

Those efforts cover a good bit of downtown, including a new Nursing and Classroom Building that includes the recently dedicated Harmon Lecture Hall.

A new dig downtown is for a new all-purpose building that will include a meeting and banquet room that will hold up to 600.

“I believe we counted it up and there were over 30 of these real estate transactions that have taken place and he was part of the effort to negotiate the acquisition of those properties. Some were outright purchases, some were donations. Some of them were acquired by trade.

“He can bargain with folks. I guess that goes with the automobile business. But he’s been very creative in trying to get some people who weren’t real eager to part with their property to do it.”

Shahan remembers one deal that involved getting the Fraternal Order of the Eagles to trade its downtown location so the college could use it for expansion.

“Ask Corky about having to drink beer with the Eagles night after night to get them to finally agree to trade their property down here for a new location to have the Eagles club,” Shahan said.

David Harmon says his dad has dealt with health issues the past year that have forced him to cut back on his work for the school and other civic activities.

“Until a year ago, he was very active,” Harmon’s son said. “He’s still sharp as a tack, but he’s passed the baton to the next generation.”