Growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, young Curt Harris learned the Midwestern reverence for honest labor.
“You work hard, and you do things the right way” says Harris, a tall, fit man who retains the Midwesterner’s relaxed brand of cordiality. “You don’t cut corners.”
In high school, Harris loved the outdoors. He also loved the mysterious complexities of finance. Upon graduating, he married his high school sweetheart, Barb, and indulged both of those interests by studying park management about an hour north at South Dakota State University in Brookings. The more required finance and accounting classes he took, the more he leaned toward economics.
“They don’t teach about money and finance in high school,” Harris explains. “A lot of people graduate without understanding even common-sensical things like supply and demand. They don’t always like what it means, so they choose to ignore it. I found it fascinating.”
At the end of his sophomore year, Harris transferred a couple hundred miles farther north along I-29 and earned his economics degree from Minnesota’s highly-regarded Moorhead State University. He hadn’t forgotten his first love, though, and quickly accepted a post with a finance company in the Denver area, just an hour’s drive from some of the best outdoors anywhere.
“I’d always wanted to be in Colorado. It seemed like a good opportunity.”
Two years later, Harris climbed aboard a small, but promising front-range banking concern called FirstBank. Despite bringing considerable professional experience to the job, he started the way all FirstBank management new-hires do, serving his time as a lowly management trainee because it was the right way to do it. In 1981 he earned an office in the company’s corporate headquarters on West Colfax, where he worked directly with FirstBank founder Roger Reisher. His boss, it seemed, shared Harris’s aversion to cutting corners.
“Reisher’s philosophy was to work hard and hire really good people,” explains Harris. “The culture was ethical and straight-forward. Other banks grew by acquisition. FirstBank grew the old-fashioned way – by growing.”
And growing the brand was a big part of Harris’s work-day. Even during the many years he served as FirstBank’s general auditor, he was also in charge of the institution’s expansion. He proved to be very good at both jobs.
“We were one of Colorado’s smaller banks when I started, with 11 locations and assets of about $300 million. We were the second-largest in the state when I left, with about 70 locations and $4 billion in assets. I’d like to think I had a little bit to do with that.”
One of those new locations was in Evergreen, and Harris had a whole lot to do with that. Seeking a challenge, he asked to be put in charge of opening the Evergreen branch. He and Barb had long had their eyes on the green jewel of the foothills, and gladly moved their three children to The Ridge at Hiwan where Curt would be within arm’s reach of his new commission. It was a challenge, indeed, one that required finding and hiring the right people, creating systems and relationships from scratch, and connecting FirstBank to an unfamiliar community.
“It was a very busy time,” Harris smiles. “We opened on Saint Patrick’s day, 1997. There’s a lot to do to get a new bank running smoothly.”
But running smoothly it soon was, and quickly won distinction as the fasting-growing branch that FirstBank had ever launched. By that time, however, it had become apparent to Harris that there’s a downside to hiring really good people.
“They were a great staff, but they felt like they weren’t doing their jobs if I had anything to do.”
Harris wasn’t raised to watch other people work for a living, and in February, 2001, he sought new challenges in retirement. His mother was mortified.
“My mom thought I got fired. No 46-year-old just quits working. She didn’t believe me until she saw my gold retirement watch.”
And it was doubtless reassuring to Mrs. Harris that her son works just as hard when he’s not working. He enrolled in Denver University’s prestigious Daniels College of Business, earning a master’s of science in finance.
“I was the second-oldest student in the business school. I was often mistaken for a professor.” And not just because of his age. Harris could easily have taught many of his classes, but he’d signed on to learn those parts of economics not covered by his career. “I was interested in international finance. I loved learning about dealing with other cultures and about foreign industries. I was actually going for an international MBA,” he sighs, “but I couldn’t speak Spanish well enough for the diploma. I’ve done absolutely nothing with the master’s. It was simply a challenge.”
Harris has served on the Mountain Area Land Trust board, the Senior Resource Center board and he’s a strong supporter of local arts. And he was hard at work with Evergreen Rotary long before he accepted watch or degree. Among many other contributions to Rotary, he’s led its Legacy Project Committee, and since 2001 he’s been deeply involved in Rocky Mountain Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA), a program that conducts workshops for hundreds of high school and middle school students drawn from across the Rocky Mountain West.
“RYLA helps them develop personal leadership skills, and gives them confidence that they can make a difference.”
Besides serving as Rocky Mountain RYLA’s able treasurer, Harris has frequently chaired its annual convocations. He’s also frequently chaired Evergreen Rotary’s International Committee, which post has frequently taken him to Tanzania on compassionate Rotary business.
Not surprisingly, Harris works hard even when he’s playing. Having never lost his passion for the outdoors, he’s got upwards of 30 Colorado 14ers under his belt, and he’s accounted for more than 2,000 miles of the Continental Divide Trail.
“I set a goal to backpack 500 miles a year. I don’t always make the full 500, but that’s always my goal.”
He’s also sampled the great outdoors of five other continents, treading trails and mastering mountains from the hoary heights of New Zealand to the Hidden Kingdom of Bhutan. And sometimes, happily, his avocations work together in perfect synchronicity. Harris has climbed Kilimanjaro three times, two of them in service to Rotary’s many humanitarian commitments in Africa. This coming January he’ll climb “Kili” again, this time in the company of six Tanzanian women, all of them graduates of the Rotarian-funded KISA program and each one an important symbol of positive change.
“KISA is a leadership program for women,” says Harris. “Woman in that culture don’t climb Kilimanjaro. They’re really not encouraged to do anything, besides what they’re told. These six women are future leaders of Tanzania, and that’s really exciting.”
Fact is, the longer Harris remains off the clock, the harder he seems to work. And that’s a pattern that’s not likely to change any time soon.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do these things,” he shrugs. “I’m going to do as much as I can as long as I can.”