By Doug Ireland
This year was NSU’s first Veterans’ Day without the most remarkable Marine it’s ever known, my favorite veteran, Harry Briggs.
He died June 25, at 95, in Leesville, far away from his Massachusetts roots. But distances never bothered Harry. He thrived on them.
It was nothing for him to climb into his beat-up Volkswagen van and drive up bouncy La. 117 to watch the Lady Demon tennis team. When the Lady Demons won their most recent Southland Tournament title in 2015 in Beaumont, there was Harry, peering through the chain link fence.
That same van criss-crossed thousands of miles across America while Harry sold knick-knacks at fairs. For nearly 50 years of being a self-described “carney,” he was something of a cult hero on that circuit. That gig led him to Leesville, and a role as an adjunct political science professor at the NSU Leesville campus. He liked the idea of teaching political science classes at a campus largely populated by military personnel.
Distances. As a young man, he leapt at the chance to go halfway around the world and fight for freedom in WWII. Distances brought him a measure of fame, and provided the path for him to impact so many lives.
While traveling Europe, he reached the summit of the 14,962-foot Matterhorn in 1954, two weeks before making his first distance swim, a 16-mile adventure through the shark-infested Strait of Bonifacio. This elevated him into celebrity status, and ultimately, into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
His most notable aquatic feat was becoming the first person to swim across Lake Erie, going for 35 hours, 55 minutes while covering 32 miles from Ohio to Ontario. A failed attempt at Lake Michigan, halted by 11-foot tall waves, was the front-page story in the Chicago Sun Times. A profile in the New York Times created “The Paddlin’ Professor” nickname.
He was a rolling stone, with an array of pursuits. Among them, he was a sportscaster in Anchorage, where he interviewed Muhammed Ali. Alaska gave him the love of his life, his wife Lydia. Her adventurous nature was a perfect match and they were married for 32 years until she passed in 1991.
Lydia had halted his distance swims, fearing for his life. Four years after her passing, he couldn’t resist temptation and dove in again, at age 74, in New Hampshire on Squam Lake for a five-mile swim, which led to an eight-miler, then 10 and 11 miles, and the “Paddlin’ Professor” was back at it for nearly the rest of his life.
Lydia also introduced him to tennis. That memory inspired him to reach out to then-NSU Tennis coach Willie Paz with what seemed a very odd proposal: a senior citizen making long-distance swims to raise money to support the tennis program.
His first at NSU was the Lydia Briggs Tennis Scholarship. Others followed; the last established when he made a two-mile swim in Alexandria’s Kincaid Lake on his 89th birthday to support nursing and radiologic sciences programs at the NSU Cenla Center.
“There are two reasons to do it, and the first is selfish,” he explained. “I want to see if I can still do it. People get older, and too often, lose the desire to challenge themselves. Secondly, but more important, it’s a chance to help NSU. It’s a great university, and I say that as a fellow who’s been all around this country and the world.”