Sort & Cull

An Incredible Life

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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John Harrington's life was full of incredible stories of long odds with plentiful bounties at the finish line.

Editor's Note:

John Harrington was a fixture in the livestock business for more than 40 years, the past 33 as the main livestock analyst and commentator for DTN and Progressive Farmer magazine. But he was so much more than that -- a leader in his community and his church, a true friend to many, a motivating father and family patriarch, a devoted husband.

John died June 10. More than 100 members of his family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues attended a July 5 memorial service for John at the First Presbyterian Church of Hastings, Nebraska. Attendees were treated to a musical mashup of John's favorite hymns and a truly motivating sermon, based on a recent debate that John, who was a trustee of the church, and Pastor Greg Allen-Pickett had over various versions of The Sermon on the Mount. Most poignantly, we listened to a lovingly prepared eulogy delivered by John's stepson, Patrick McQuillan.

Many of us knew one, or perhaps two, dimensions of John Harrington. But Patrick's words informed us of the so, so many sides to this studious, thoughtful, intelligent, caring human being who left us way too soon. We thought it only just to share some of that enlightenment with others who followed and knew John but could not be present on that warm July day in Hastings.

What's missing in the text below is Patrick's masterful delivery, which had those who packed the sanctuary both roaring with laughter and dabbing our eyes from sadness. We thank Patrick and the Harrington family for allowing us to share this with John's readers. -- Greg Horstmeier


Good morning, I'm Patrick McQuillan, John's son. The task at hand for me today is one of incredible sadness but also incredible honor. Not only is it to write and deliver a eulogy for John, but also to say goodbye to my blood brother, my mentor and my dad. So, with limited confidence of success, and knowing full well how much better John would have written and delivered it himself, let's begin.

"Glory is knocking, and we must prepare for her banquet."

These words were written by John a few years ago. No, it's not a quote from Scripture, nor from one of John's favorite theology books, and I'm pretty sure this never made his Sort & Cull blog. John said this to me a few hours before American Pharaoh raced and won the Belmont Stakes in 2015 and locked in the first Triple Crown in 35 years.

"Glory is knocking, and we must prepare for her banquet."

We had bet this horse for the first two legs of the Triple Crown and were hopeful for the third and final win! Our horse racing days started years before at Fonner Park, in Grand Island, Nebraska, as John would take me in the spring to watch the races. My focus was primarily on the hot dogs and popcorn while John would pore over the daily race form and find his perfect combinations of sure-fire winners and great-value long shots. John enjoyed betting on the ponies, but most of all he enjoyed telling me stories of all the wild bets and photo finishes that he and Mac Martin had seen at the track over the years. With each telling, the odds of winning always got longer and the size of their prize always got bigger.

John's life was full of incredible stories of long odds with plentiful bounties at the finish line.

Starting with his birth in McCook, Nebraska, four weeks past his due date and with cerebral palsy. (It was) a diagnosis that would accompany him throughout his life, but that would certainly not define him. He loved to swim, to drive, to travel the world and see the great castles of Scotland and the storied museums of Paris. His biggest obstacles in life tended not to be the flights of stairs, broken elevators or revolving doors that plagued his travels, but the naysayers or bystanders doubting and underestimating his ability to overcome a roadblock. Underestimating John was something many people did once, but very few did twice.

He loved to be underestimated. It fueled his drive.

John dedicated himself to his career in the cattle business, an industry that ran in his blood. Four generations worth of experience in the business made John one of the top analysts in the game. Like the generations of Harrington's before him who worked tirelessly tending to and feeding cattle, so too did John work tirelessly at his craft. He was up at dawn dictating his morning commentary over the phone to colleagues in Omaha and up late at night putting the finishing touches on the next day's columns.

He wrote columns for top industry publications, gave lectures and was a guest speaker all over the country. He produced a weekly newsletter, Feel of the Market, that was distributed to hundreds of yearly subscribers across North America. He wrote a weekly blog for DTN called Harrington's Sort & Cull that "ranks among the most lively business commentary available on the Internet."

Now, that was a quote directly from John himself, but based on his experience in the field, it carries great weight. He knew the business so well. More importantly, he dissected, repacked and retold it in such an articulate, witty and confident way that his analysis was not just read, but was consumed by his audience.

The one area that the odds were stacked in John's favor were his friends and family. His friends were as numerous and diverse as they come. John had every quality you wanted in a good friend. He was a great listener, who found genuine interest in your problems and what you had to say. Passing the time shooting the bull with John was as funny and engaging as they come. He loved debating politics, religion and quite honestly any other topic of the day. His passion for debating good friends was not to be the victor of the debate, instead it was to work his beliefs and ideologies into a digestible way that would at the very least spark a moment of pause for you to truly absorb his thoughts. John continued to be shaped and molded by his friends throughout his life. Childhood friends, college buddies, Bible study early morning risers and city council cohorts, to name a few, all helped shape his ever evolving and optimistic outlook on the world.

As for his family, he would often tell stories about his mother and father, Ruth and Bud. He relied on their great intelligence, humor and compassion daily; it was their foundation that made John such a wonderful person. As the youngest of three, he loved and cared deeply for his older siblings. No one made John laugh more than his sister, Sue Ann. The two of them would go back and forth on a joke for hours, each one funnier than the previous. As so many young brothers do, John always looked up to his brother, Doug, speaking often about Doug's athleticism and physicality as if it was his own. The siblings together loved nothing more than sitting around and telling wild stories of their parents, childhood and memories of family business.

His nieces and nephews all held a very special place in his heart. He relished in their achievements and loved watching their families grow, always updating the family on changes, additions and special accomplishments with such great joy and admiration.

In 1992 at the young age of 40, John's definition of family was forever changed. He married my mom [Barb] on a cold January night down the street at the Episcopal Church. I'm sure John had thought through his engagement to my mom extensively, but I can assure you he wasn't prepared for the three kids she had in tow. We welcomed John like a new recruit to a fraternity. He no longer had privacy, experienced drama at its best, and was consumed by the chaos of his new family. The hazing rituals that he would often refer back to were an overnight Boy Scout trip to a dirt medicine lodge and a massive week-long family reunion in South Dakota. These events shared similarities like camping, wilderness survival and what seemed a direct effort to be as far from handicap accessible [facilities] as possible. But, with grit and determination, John barreled through these new family trails, coming out the other side only slightly scarred but with the street credibility of the Boy Scouts and the love and admiration of Mom's entire family. Over time, he not only became acclimated to the waters of his new family, but he became our family cornerstone and patriarch.

The love that we had for John was equally matched by him for all of us. He wrote me a letter after high school graduation saying, "Pat, our family was one of those things that you don't know what you're missing until you find it. And what a treasure I found. I will spend the rest of my life in humble gratitude for all of your love."

However, it is Megan, Erin and I who will spend our lives in humble gratitude for the time we spent with John and what he brought to our lives and the doors of opportunity he opened to each of us.

John was so many things to all of us here today. I'm sure we all admired him and loved him as something unique to each of us. A lover of the ponies, an incredible writer, student of theology, a great city councilman, a coworker, boss, a lifelong friend, uncle, grandfather, brother, father. Each and every one of these he relished, was proud of and worked hard to maintain.

But there was a title I believe that brought him the most joy and happiness and that was husband. He married my mom when I was seven years old. For a second grader, John's love and devotion for Mom was incredible to see but also wildly frustrating. He made everything about her! What she wanted! Where she wanted to go! He adored her and got such incredible joy in finding even the smallest things to do to make her smile. His incredible love and dedication to his wife will forever be something I will strive for within my own marriage. Even in John's darkest moments over the past year as he battled cancer, his focus and concern were over her health, her well-being and what he needed to do to ensure her happiness. They gave each other strength, hope and together they built an incredible 27-year marriage.

I'm going to miss John very much. I'm going to miss helping him out the car. Listening to his short, concise and heartfelt prayers before Christmas dinner. I'm going to miss the excitement in his voice on Derby Day. I'm going to miss seeing him cry during sappy TV shows or scaring the hell out of him when I would come in the back door at my childhood home. I'm going to miss the pep talk phrase that he would always say to me whenever he knew life was coming at me fast: "Take it to 'em, my boy."

I know we will all miss John in our own way.

We will miss a man who led his life not defined by its circumstance, but more so the compass of his life was directed by his own dreams and aspirations. John's life and legacy will be carried on by his friends and family who will forever share the inspiration and wisdom that he gave to each one of us throughout this life.

To close, I want to read a letter that Bud Harrington, John's father, wrote to him on his 21st birthday:

"To say that your mother and I are proud of you is the understatement of the year. Some might think the fact that you carry a physical handicap is quite a load. Personally, I have never been an advocate or even sympathetic to the burden theory and along with you, think it so much hog-wash. Everyone carries some kind of handicap, but you've never let yours deter or keep you on the sideline of the mainstream life. The Lord has given you many compensating factors, a keen mind, a sense of dedication, determination, a gift of happiness, the capacity of love and a boundless reserve of tried and tested courage. All of those things you have shared with all of us."


See other tributes to John at…and…

Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @greghorstmeier



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