An Urban's Rural View

John Harrington, RIP

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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John Harrington worked for DTN from 1985 until he retired in early 2019. (DTN file photo)

I received an email from a reader who had just read Cheri Zagurski's touching obituary of John Harrington, which if you missed it you can see here: (…) The reader said he "was surprised to learn of John's cerebral palsy."

No doubt many of John's readers were surprised. Most had never seen him in person. By the time I came to DTN, John didn't speak at farm shows or do television interviews. He spent his days in his office in Hastings, Nebraska, doing what he loved, analyzing the cattle markets.

Yet it wasn't just John's infrequent public appearances that kept readers in the dark about his condition. He had an unusual ability to make people forget his disability. When I visited him in his office he was so engaged in our conversation, so full of laughter and life, that I hardly noticed his physical limitations.

When we went out to lunch, John wanted to drive. It took him a good three or four minutes to wrench himself into the driver's seat and scrunch and wiggle himself into position in front of the wheel of his car. It could have been excruciating to watch. It wasn't. John was telling a raucous story the whole time. I was far more focused on where his tale was going than where his tail was going.

DTN Associate Editor Cheri Zagurski remembers the first time she rode in John's car. "It had a big bench seat in front and I climbed in the passenger side," she said. "What I didn't know was that to get into the car John practically had to lie down across the seat. His head was in my lap for a moment. But he just kept on talking like nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. So I felt that way too!"

John was, to use one of his favorite words, irrepressible. He was also funny and smart and even erudite. His office library bookshelves were filled with the classics, and he'd read them. But the most important thing in his character was his unconquerable determination to live life to the fullest, cerebral palsy or no.

He wrote with verve and wit. One of his most famous columns, produced too many decades ago to find online, featured a conversation between a cattle-futures trader and his broker. The column alluded to a famous incident in which the wife of the governor of Arkansas, a commodity-market novice named Hillary Clinton, had made a small fortune with a minimal capital outlay, causing all sorts of speculation about the sources of her luck. At the end of John's column, the cattle-futures trader urged his broker to let him know "when Hillary goes long."

In a more recent piece, a tribute to the late George H.W. Bush, John showed off his mastery of metaphor. After listing the many important positions Bush had held -- Navy pilot, CIA director, U.S. president and many others -- John wrote that the list "makes those of us who've stuck with the same old stack of chores for decades feel as boring as a professional striper of streets." (…)

John was a big fish in a small pond, the cattle audience being but a tiny fraction of the population. But he could have been a big fish in a big pond if he'd wanted to. He could have won Pulitzer prizes writing editorials for the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. He could have written best-selling novels. He was that good.

I wonder if the thought of doing anything else ever occurred to him. Probably not. He loved the cattle game and the people playing it. That love colored everything he wrote.

In May 2018, after cash cattle had plummeted $15, John served up three reasons why prices could fall even further. Typical of him, though, he wrapped his analysis in self-abasing apologies, acknowledging that " the last thing feedlot managers want to hear is more sad violin music" and pleading with readers to " Trust me, I take no pleasure in promoting extra stress and anxiety for anyone brave enough to make a living in this tough biz." (…)

Life can be unfair. John Harrington was born with a handicap and died of cancer at the all-too-young age of 67. But the enthusiastic way he lived the 67 years he was given serves as a model for us all.

His many friends and readers will miss him terribly.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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