Department of Community Justice parole and probation officer John Harlan dedicated his life to helping others

April 18, 2014

John Harlan’s small gestures were always big to those he helped.

The parole and probation officer who supervised mentally ill offenders once ran into a former client. Harlan treated the man to a cup of coffee so he could catch up and see how the man was doing.

Later in the day, someone spotted the man still holding the empty Starbucks cup and offered to throw it away.

“No,” said the man, who has since been civilly committed. “John gave that to me.”

On March 22, Harlan, 53, of La Center, Wash., was killed in a motorcycle accident on Interstate 5 near Ridgefield while riding home at night. Washington State Police said alcohol and foul play were not factors.

In nearly 22 years working in the county’s Department of Community Justice, Harlan developed a passion for working with mentally ill offenders, including some with sex offenses. He listened when others wouldn’t. He helped when others didn’t. Despite his clients’ challenges, Harlan avoided excuses and found ways to improve clients’ lives.

“He models what it is to work with people who are not lovable, but who can be loved, and who have a sickness that we can’t understand,” said Javelin Hardy, a parole and probation officer.

Harlan first joined the Department of Community Justice in 1992 as an on-call community works leader, a position that was quickly made permanent. He became a parole and probation officer in 1994 and most recently worked on the Mental Health Supervision team. He has also worked in other Adult Services Division units, including the Domestic Violence Supervision Team, Family Services Unit, North Supervision Unit, West Office Mental Health/Sex Offender Team, Alternative Sanction Sentencing Program and Intensive Case Management Unit. He served as a lead parole and probation officer, taking on additional responsibility and training other officers in firearms instruction and survival skills.

As news of Harlan’s death spread, friends and colleagues in the Department of Community Justice mourned their loss and remembered Harlan for his commitment to people and to bettering the community.

Tom White, a parole and probation officer, knew Harlan’s work well. The two swapped caseloads when White moved to the Domestic Violence Unit and Harlan took over White’s mentally ill offender clients.

White noted Harlan’s effectiveness with his former clients because they were engaged and checked in when they were supposed to. He even set up a movie night as a non-threatening way to attract clients to the office and connect with them.

“He set these systems up that really made you be honest and really make you work your tail off,” White said. “That was just him raising the bar and saying, ‘This is what it takes sometimes.’”

White, who refers to Harlan as a “kindred spirit in the mental health world,” described the challenges of working with people who were disenfranchised and mentally ill. That includes delivering services to people even when resources aren’t available; working around a person’s criminal history to help them find jobs or housing; and supporting a client who does not have family or friends to lean on.

White said when Harlan spotted gaps in the mental health system, he tried to fill them himself to get clients what they needed: a bed, food, shelter. He also took medication to clients on weekends or took them to appointments.

“John would say ‘No, this person is worth it,’” White said. “That’s where Harlan was very unique. Once he decided a person was worth the effort -- that was it. John knew you extend extra effort sometimes just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Harlan’s approach was to first establish rapport with clients. He always had coffee brewing in his office for visitors. If he ran into clients in the streets and they looked hungry, he treated them to a meal on his dime.

“Of course it benefited the client because it’s nice that someone buys them lunch,” said Jolyn Gatto, a parole and probation officer. “But John truly enjoyed that. It almost benefited John more than maybe for the client.”

While the work was challenging, Harlan wasn’t one to complain.

“He viewed it as everyone’s responsibility to be a part of their community and take care of it,” White said. “He’s the type of guy where you could put him on a desert island with 15 people and he’s going to make it great. He’ll say, ‘Don’t ask why we’re here, or why the sun is too hot. Here is where we are, so what are we going to do today.’”

Harlan was known around the Department of Community Justice’s North Office for being a handyman who could fix anything. Some of that came from his service in the U.S. Air Force Reserve where he learned to fix planes, friends said. In addition to building his family’s home in La Center, Harlan also offered his skills to build structures used as targets in firearms training.

While heading to a shooting range last week, Harlan told Gatto, who worked in the North Office with him, that a coworker who lived in East County was having car troubles and was texting him over the weekend for help. Harlan drove down from his Washington home the same day to fix the car.

“The majority of what he did in his adult life was about helping other people,” Gatto said.

Though Harlan didn’t plan to retire for several years, he spoke with coworkers about his dreams for the future. He recently shared some of those plans with Hardy, who also works in the North Office, by saying he wanted to buy apartments for mentally ill offenders who had trouble finding housing.

“He wanted a livable, clean, safe place for clients to live,” Hardy said. “He was saying they deserved better housing.”

Hardy and Harlan often spent time in downtown Portland where many of their clients lived. She said they made an unlikely pair and often caught stares from passersby.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” they’d say. “He was tall, lanky John, and then me, the African-American sister with locs.”

Each had nicknames for each other. Hardy was Brown Sugar. Harlan was Vanilla Ice.

“It was our code to get away whenever things looked like they were about to go down,” Hardy said.

Harlan will be remembered for being a family man who was devoted to his wife, Lisa, their son, Sam, and daughter, Jocelyn. Harlan had a sense of adventure and loved to travel. In 2004, he took a year off from work to sail from Oregon to Mexico then over to Hawaii before returning to the mouth of the Columbia River. The family documented their trip in a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed blog.

In one entry from September 2004, the family wrote about their time stopping in Monterey Bay, Calif. where Harlan was excited to spend time at car show with the original Batmobile and where the family shared space with the sea lions near the marina where there boat was docked.

“Our stay was very enjoyable and we learned to SLOW DOWN our life a bit,” the entry said.

“He loved to be with his family,” Gatto said. “He absolutely adores his children and supports them. He just really enjoyed those moments with his family and children.”

Recently, Travis Gamble, a parole and probation officer, stopped by Harlan’s office to chat. The conversation turned to nature as Harlan recalled a visit to Oneonta Falls and being waist-deep in water. He loved the natural world, as he did people.

“He always found the beauty in things,” Gamble said. “He always looked for the beautiful things in people. He reminded us that we need to connect with people. That’s who he was. He couldn’t fake it if he tried.”

Harlan is survived by his wife, Lisa, son, Sam, and daughter, Jocelyn.

A Celebration of Life ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 29 at New Hope Community Church, 11731 S.E. Stevens Rd., Happy Valley.