‘He Was The Best Penn Stater That Possibly Could Have Been’: All-Sports Museum To Unveil Franco Harris Photomosaic Mural
When people think of Franco Harris, there are often four words to describe him: man of the people.
In light of the one-year anniversary of his passing approaching in December, the Penn State All-Sports Museum wanted to memorialize him in a significant way.
“People were asking almost immediately after his death last December what we were going to do to honor him,” Interim Director and Programming & Education Coordinator Lew Lazarow said. “We absolutely wanted to do something, but we didn’t want to rush it. We wanted to make sure we were honoring him in the best way possible.”
Harris had his hand in many baskets, being involved in any and everything he could whether it was with Penn State Athletics, the Alumni Association, the NFL Hall of Fame, various businesses, the Special Olympics, and many others. He made an impact on everyone he met.
“He was very much a visible figure here,” Lazarow said. “A lot of people knew him and had a connection to him. There was a lot of motivation to represent his life in the best way possible.”
When coming up with ideas, Lazarow and his wife came to the realization that of all the things people knew Harris for, the major intersection between them all was his willingness to get to know the people with whom he crossed paths.
“We both simultaneously came to this realization that when you met Franco and asked if you could get a photo he would 100% always say yes,” Lazarow said. “It didn’t matter if you were here for a game, a Hall of Fame event, a Steelers game, or literally walking through Pittsburgh airport — if you saw him he would always say yes.”
That’s where the idea started to bloom. Harris had no qualms about talking to anyone or doing something as simple as taking a picture with them. But little did he know the impact this would bring.
“I immediately thought back to when he was grand marshal of the Homecoming parade back in 2007,” Lazarow recounted. “I was there with my whole family at the Hintz Alumni Center when the grand marshal was being introduced, and there was just this gigantic mob surrounding Franco and he was standing in the main room of the center and he took the time with every single person there. He wouldn’t let anyone tell him otherwise.”
This memory got Lazarow thinking.
“I got a photo of my son who was around eight at the time with Franco and the football he got autographed, and it made me think how many more photos like this are out there,” Lazarow said. “There had to be thousands upon thousands.”
Lazarow wanted to find a way for people to send in their photos but didn’t want Harris’s impact to be limited to just a board with a bunch of pictures on it.
“We wanted the ‘wow factor’,” Lazarow said. “We want people to really feel like this is something they really contributed to rather than just having a board that people are sticking their photos to. So the more I’m thinking about it I’m like, there has to be a way for people to contribute photos in a more formal fashion.”
Lazarow, who graduated from Penn State in 1992, has held a position within the museum for the past few years. He couldn’t even count the number of times he had walked in and out of the HUB and passed the photo mosaic mural outside of the THON Store.
“I was thinking, what if we did that to form an image of Franco?” Lazarow said. “So I started doing research, and I wanted to find a company based in PA. So I gave a business a call, and unknowingly to me they were the company that did that mosaic at the HUB. Not only had they done that, but they had been in the museum before so they knew exactly what I was talking about in the lobby, and they said they would love to help us with this project.”
The plans started to come together quickly after to get the project started.
“When we opened up the website for submissions not even 48 hours later, we already had 900 photos and counting of people with Franco from all over,” Lazarow said. “The company told us we could easily stop it there if we wanted to, but the plan is to run it till the end of October to see how many photos we can get.”
The photos come from everywhere at every single stage of Harris’s life. Lazarow, who is facilitating and overseeing the submissions, has the opportunity to go through each and every single one of the photos.
“One of the great things about this mural is being able to see all of these different facets of not only Franco’s life but all of these different points of other people’s lives as well and where they have intersected with Franco,” Lazarow explained. “Being able to see not only the pictures but the captions people wrote alongside them and their memories of when they met him, and knowing just how gracious he was is a very fulfilling feeling.”
In all aspects of his life, Franco always embodied what it meant to be a true Penn Stater.
“He was the best Penn Stater that possibly could have been,” Lazarow said. “And I think everyone knows it too. Celebrating his life and his accomplishments in this way allows people to mourn a great loss but also celebrate the wonderful life he had led.”
In the mural, there are photos stretching across Harris’s whole life, from high school up to just a few days before his passing.
“I got this great photo from a school in South Jersey that played against Franco’s high school, Rancocas Valley Regional,” Lazarow said. “It’s this black-and-white photo from a yearbook, and the man who submitted the photo wrote a caption stating it was him in the photo attempting to tackle Franco when their schools played each other, and that he knew that he wasn’t going to be successful but knew from that very day that Franco would be.”
There are currently over 1,600 photos submitted, but the mural can have up to 7,500. The tentative date to unveil the mural is currently November 11, when the Nittany Lions host Michigan at Beaver Stadium.
Folks interested in submitting a photo with Harris can do so here.
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