TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — James (Jimmy) Harrison Jr., who developed the Tuscaloosa family business Harco Inc. into the nation’s second-largest privately held drug store chain and served his community and state through numerous educational and service enterprises, died February 24. He was 87.
James Irving Harrison Jr. emblazoned his family’s name over a chain of stores that, through his vision and management, grew across three states into hundreds of operations, employing 3,300 at its peak.
Though the Harrison family sold Harco to Rite Aid in 1997, a deal that included K&B out of New Orleans, that didn’t signal time for retirement, but queued up Phase 2 in a long life of philanthropy and community work for Jimmy Harrison and Peggy, his wife of 65 years, and their family, including five children and 15 grandchildren.
As Harrison moved toward company leadership in the ’60s, the family owned four stores. On December 8, 1967, the expanding chain incorporated as Harco Drug. The company’s second-generation leader was among pioneers of the “super drug” format, adding rows of products including clothing, groceries, household goods, books and magazines, cleaning and automotive products, and other nonpharmaceutical merchandise.
By the time Harco sold to Rite Aid in 1997, it had opened 154 drug stores across Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, with an expansion into about 50 Carport Auto Parts stores. The Harco TotalCare home health care division, founded in 1978, had sold its dozen stores in 1996 to American HomePatient.
Tommy Ford, recently retired from the University of Alabama athletics department, has been asked by the family to write a history of Harco, something he’s been researching more than four years. Ford’s wife, Robin, worked as a pharmacist for Harco in the ’80s and ’90s.
“Mr. Harrison was so gracious, and so nice to his employees and to their families,” Ford said. “His vision, his tireless work ethic, was just unbelievable. He was such a perfectionist. He wanted Harco to be the best at everything: best pharmacy, best front of store, best makeup. … He wanted Harco to be the go-to store.”
Harco was regularly named America’s Best Regional Drug Chain, in annual assessments by Chain Drug Review. In the ’80s, Harrison was named Chain Drug Store Executive of the Decade, and in 1985 he served as chairman of the board for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Through his efforts, in 2002 Auburn University renamed its pharmacy school for his father, who had graduated from there in 1928.
After the Rite Aid sale, Jimmy and Peggy Harrison devoted even more time to community service and philanthropy.
“It already is a difficult adjustment for me. You just can’t do something 47 years intensely and all of a sudden turn the faucet off,” Harrison said in a 1997 interview with The Tuscaloosa News.
Over the years, the James I. Harrison Family Foundation has contributed to a long list of charitable organizations devoted to families, the arts, education and improving the lives of citizens in western Alabama and beyond.
“The philanthropic work from the foundation is probably the best thing the family ever did,” he said in an interview with Tuscaloosa magazine, published in 2017. “We have, I believe and pray, had a substantial effect in a variety of areas in the state.”