Remembering the great “Wild Thing”

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2024

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By Bonnie Bartel Latino


Every time I hear the opening wail of an electric guitar, which opened the Troggs’ popular version of “Wild Thing,” I still see and hear Kenny Harrison’s joy as he howled the lyrics when the song blasted over the airwaves of his dearly beloved, blue ‘59 Chevy Bel Air. Kenny and Joe Brantley were the captains of the 1965-66 Blue Devil football team. Kenny, as was his fellow Blue Devil football captain, Joe Brantley, was polite, kind, and popular with everyone, including their teachers. A known jokester, Kenny, probably frustrated some of the latter group. He especially joked about anything having to do with books, classes, teachers, and tests. Please don’t misunderstand. Kenny and Joe never did anything malicious or unkind like some of the older students, who left live chickens in a teacher’s car – for hours. Those chickens ruined her vehicle. That was never Joe or Kenny’s style, nor was writing THE four-letter expletive across the school’s front façade just days before the Class of 1965 graduated. Kenny’s Mama and the Catholic Church taught him better than that. Joe knew better from his mama and his Baptist upbringing.

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Although different, Kenny and Joe were alike in all ways that mattered. The two just “clicked” in junior high. Their team voted them captains then, too. They both had strong work ethics, Kenny on his parents’ farm and Joe in his family’s tire business. He’s still working today at Bondurant’s Hardware in Atmore. When Joe married Mary Emma Floyd after she graduated from ECHS, they chose Kenny as a groomsmen. Of course, he said yes. Kenny later married Kathy Ward of Atmore.

Kenny’s school pranks were usually verbal. His one-liners were guaranteed to make any group of people, anywhere, laugh uncontrollably. He possessed perfect timing, and his mind worked lightning-fast – and in quirky directions. For instance, he and some of the other football players must have driven Joyce Jackson crazy with their classroom antics. Some of her students conducted repetitive spitball wars during her English class. They often targeted their teacher. Again, not Mr. Harrison’s style. What Kenny did was infinitely better than the juvenile, nasty spit ball wars during class. One fall day he and a few friends clustered their desks in the back rows of Mrs. Jackson’s classroom near a wall of windows that looked onto a stretch of grass between their wing and another brick building. That day, for the first time, students had noticed two golden-haired ponies grazing on the grass. Led by Kenny, the boys in back mumbled softly. Slowly their mumble became louder. Annoyed, Mrs. Jackson looked straight at Kenny. “Who is mumbling back there?” Quicker than quick, Kenny answered. “Not us, Mrs. Jackson.” He pointed at the windows and the ponies. “It’s the talking horses from the circus.” Of course, Ringling Brothers was in town that week. How did he create such a hilarious, snappy reply so quickly?

Todd Rodgers, who graduated with the Class of 1966, said recently in a text message: “Ken had a quirky sense of humor. I believe he was actually smarter than his grades indicated.” Todd nailed it. Kenny’s grades had been low enough in junior high that Coach C.P. Floyd wanted to hold him back a year. Obviously, his concern had at least as much to do with the coach’s football roster for the following year. Kenny’s parents nixed that idea. Kenny moved on to tenth grade with his classmates. It seemed odd that he was so quick-thinking with clever comebacks for almost any topic when his grades didn’t come close to his mental verbal agility and humorous one-liners.

None of Ken’s school friends knew about an undiagnosed disability Ken had that would have negatively affected anyone’s grades and reading comprehension. Even his dad, who died shortly after Ken graduated from ECHS, never knew of his disability. At that time, even Ken didn’t know. One of the reasons I am sharing this story is to perhaps help someone’s child, who may suffer from this disability, and possibly be diagnosed earlier. When Heath, Kathy and Ken’s oldest son, was evaluated for reading disorders, the person evaluating the students asked Heath to read a prepared text aloud. Silently, Kenny read along with him. Heath’s reading sounded … different. The evaluator said, “Heath, you have dyslexia.”

“Then I must have it, too,” Ken interjected, “I read it just like my son.”

When I heard about that conversation at a class reunion, so many things finally made sense. While dyslexia was unknown in the 1960s and early ‘70s, I wondered if Ken, on some unconscious level, had hidden his lack of academic performance behind his off-beat sense of humor and quick wit that could dazzle even our high school principal. On multiple Friday mornings before daylight in the Spring of 1965 and 1966 Kenny and teammate, Jerry Cruit, loaded Cruit’s surfboard atop Kenny’s Chevy and parked in Mr. Travis Black’s reserved parking space in front of ECHS. Without fail, within 10 minutes of homeroom, someone came over the P.A. system and announced, “Kenneth Harrison, you’re wanted in the principal’s office.” Laughter quickly filled the halls of “Dear old Atmore high.” This happened more than two or three times. Kenny never mentioned Mr. Black asking anymore of him other than to move his car.

I suspect that having the knowledge of his Dyslexia made it easier to adapt to the disability and rise from ground zero at Wal-Mart to being store manager at multiple stores around the country and, ultimately, store manager of at least one Super Wal-Mart. While working 70-hours a week for years, he simultaneously was the primary caregiver for his (late) wife, Rhonda Harrison who, by then, had severe Multiple Sclerosis. He had helped Rhonda raise her infant daughter, Stacey, by her first marriage. Later, Rhonda and Ken had two more children, Byron and Douglas. Ken also had a daughter, Heather, from his first marriage. All of Ken’s children are now adults and all have children.

After Multiple Sclerosis claimed Rhonda Harrison’s life in 2019, Ken eventually married Marlene Dekok in mid-June of 2020. I believe Ken felt fatherly to Marlene’s adult children. The couple celebrated their fourth anniversary just days before Ken joined over 30 of his former classmates in heaven.

A few weeks before Ken left this life, he received Last Rites at the home he and Marlene shared in Foley. Grandchildren Haleigh, Crosby, and Ryleigh Harrison expressed their appreciation for Marlene, who took such loving care of their “Pawpaw,” particularly after he was diagnosed with Lymphoma, which claimed his life on June 25, 2024.

When the Class of 1966 sees summer lightning, we know thunder is disguising loud singing as Kenny Harrison wails “Wild Thing,” making all God’s angels belly laugh at something funny and smart that he, no doubt, improvises.