Donald E. Harkness was a lover and scholar of literature and language — so much so that he instructed teachers of Shakespeare and could recite long passages of Homer’s “The Iliad” in Latin.
The former superintendent of schools in Manhasset could dazzle students and lure them in even if they were not interested in the material, relatives said.
“He was the truest literary mind that I have ever known,” an educator “full of quotes and poetry,” especially from Shakespeare, said one of his sons, Bruce Harkness, of Tokyo, Japan.
Another son, Jeffrey Harkness of Pipersville, Pennsylvania, called his father “a consummate teacher. People found themselves learning stuff even if they didn’t want to.”
Donald Harkness died Oct. 20 at his home in Huntington after a brief battle with pneumonia. He was 89.
Harkness got his love of literature from his mother, Lucetta, who was an English teacher at a public high school in Queens. She was also an adventurer who traveled to New Zealand to marry a local man she had met in New York while he was working here.
She became pregnant with Donald while she was in New Zealand, but her husband — a World War I bomber pilot — died while testing planes. She returned to New York, and Donald was born in a hospital in Brooklyn.
The family valued education, and Donald was sent from Whitestone to the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, the Bronx. He went on to Yale, where he earned a Master's in art history.
After graduation he hoped to follow in the footsteps of the father he never met by becoming a fighter pilot. He joined the Air Force, but his large frame — 6-foot-6 — was a problem.
“They liked him a lot but they said, ‘Don, you are never going to be a pilot, face it, because they don’t build planes big enough for you,’” Jeffrey Harkness said. “He was literally too tall to fit in the cockpit.”
Air Force officials told him that, “If you ever had to eject out, your legs would be literally chopped off,” his son said.
So he served in the Intelligence unit of the Air Force during the Korean War, in part because he spoke German. He was not allowed to discuss his work, and for years remained silent.
After his retirement from the Manhasset schools in 1992, he confided to his family that his work had been to interrogate former Nazis and suspected sympathizers in the hierarchy to find out if the Germans or anyone else in Europe was thinking of starting another war, Jeffrey Harkness said.
After he returned to civilian life, he landed a job teaching English in Manhasset. He brought considerable talents to the classroom, including deep knowledge of the literary classics and a breathtaking vocabulary, his sons said.
He had “a virtual ’super power‘ for knowing what seemed like every word ever listed in any English dictionary,” Jeffrey Harkness said.
He eventually rose up the ranks to assistant superintendent and finally superintendent — a post he held for about four years.
One way he stood out as an administrator was in bringing diverse groups together, his sons said. In his first year as superintendent, amid sharp debate about how to celebrate Christmas, he created an action group to ease tensions between Christians, the Jewish community, and others, his sons said.
“He did not take any sides,“ Bruce Harkness said. “He just wanted to get the sides together. He wanted to see everyone was accounted for. He was trusted in the community.”
After he retired he formed a pro bono group of retired teachers called Educorps that helped disadvantaged school districts.
He also taught a free Shakespeare course at Hofstra University for professors and other educators, many of them teachers of Shakespeare.
Other survivors are sons Timothy Harkness, of York, Maine, and Christopher Harkness of Albion, Maine; daughter Victoria Harkness, of Greenlawn; and three grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Janet, in 2018.
Visitation will be Friday, 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., at M.A. Connell Funeral Home in Huntington Station. A funeral service will be Saturday, 11:30 a.m,. at the United Methodist Church of Woodbury. Interment will be Sunday, 11:30 a.m., at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla.