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Sky-high ambition: : Greenfield native reflects on his path to becoming Space Center Houston CEO

Local man remembers educational inspiration at Greenfield High that drove him to become Space Center Houston CEO

  • HARRIS



Recorder Staff
Monday, May 09, 2016

HOUSTON, Texas — When Greenfield native William Harris was in sixth grade, his class took a field trip to the Museum of Science in Boston that changed his life.

Recently, Harris took the helm as president and CEO of Space Center Houston after spending more than 30 years in nonprofit leadership. A 1977 graduate of Greenfield High School, he said that first visit to the city was what sparked a passion for the natural sciences that continued throughout junior high school and beyond.

“I can remember that day in color, and all of the details,” he said. “That really cemented my interest and passion in science,” he said.

Harris said it was his teacher’s belief that no student should graduate elementary school without taking a trip to Boston to visit the Museum of Science and to see a play, so the class sold holiday cards to help pay for a coach bus. To the then 11-year-old Harris, the 100-mile ride seemed like an eternity.

“When the bus passed through Arlington and I saw the Boston skyline, I had this feeling like I was arriving at some magical place,” he said.

At the museum, Harris described seeing models of the human body and exhibits on electricity.

“I had no context, so as we were going through the museum and seeing the exhibits, it was so exciting,” he said. “It was an experience that just connected a lot of dots to understand physiology, science, engineering.”

Last month, Harris took over at Space Center Houston — a nonprofit space and science learning center and the official visitor center for the NASA Johnson Space Center — after being recruited for the position while working at the California Science Center Foundation as senior vice president of development and marketing.

With approximately 400 employees and contractors, the space center is the No. 1 international attraction in the greater Houston area, generating a $73 million annual economic impact, 925 jobs and $36 million in personal income. It is also Houston’s first and only Smithsonian Affiliate.

The job comes at a particularly exciting time, Harris said, as NASA continues to pursue its vision of humans on Mars within the next several decades.

“The other side of the coin here, too, is our nation faces a real crisis in science learning,” he said.

“We have a whole generation of baby boomers who have worked in science careers that are retiring, and we do not have an adequate number of people in the pipeline to fill those positions.”

A critical part of the space center’s infrastructure, he said, is to inform, engage and motivate young people’s interest in the STEM fields through outreach and education — skills that run thick in Harris’ blood.

Growing up in Greenfield, he said his mother and father were very civic-minded, holding positions on the YMCA board and Parent-Teacher Association, respectively. His mother is also a retired high school teacher in town.

“We were always involved in doing things for the community,” he said. “Without question, my parents have always been very committed to learning and education. We learned from the time we were children that we’d be going to college, and they really spared no expense or time to support us in going in that direction.”

Harris attended Tufts University, where he studied research psychology and went on to join the Peace Corps, traveling to Paraguay and learning two languages.

“It really embodied everything I was seeking at that point in my life,” he said. “That was also personally transformative. You’re put into an environment where (others) don’t adapt to you, you have to adapt to them.”

Because he grew up in a family that was always doing charitable things, he said that was a value he learned at a young age, and later realized it was something he could do as a full-time job.

Throughout his career, he’s worked in leadership positions at the University of California, Los Angeles; the RAND/UCLA Center for Soviet Studies; the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts in Boston; and the Boston University School of Medicine.

“I’m very proud to have been born and raised in Greenfield,” he said, adding he grew up in a rural part of town surrounded by about 10 acres of forest, and was always very curious about how the world worked.

“We had two neighbors, so it was really very idyllic. We could go out and play every day and we had some wonderful teachers going through the public school system,” he said. “It was a great environment to really explore the world.”

And for others who want to follow their dreams from a small city like Greenfield to organizations like Space Center Houston and beyond, Harris has some advice — “Never lose your curiosity and know that you set your boundaries and limits in life,” he said. “Really follow your passion. Whatever your passion is, that is what you should pursue.”

You can reach Aviva Luttrell at: aluttrell@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 268
On Twitter: @AvivaLuttrell