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Obituary: Sidney Harris / Soda bottler and inventor

Thursday, June 05, 2003

By Jon Vandenburgh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sidney Harris left school after eighth grade to work Downtown selling flavored drinks and ice from the back of a horse-drawn wagon.

"He didn't have blood going through his veins; he had pop going through his veins," said Paul Bowser, who was both a friend and business partner. "He slept, ate and drank the soda business."

That's just one side of a man who often seemed to be from another time.

Mr. Harris, of Squirrel Hill, died of natural causes Monday. He was 100.

It's no overstatement to say that Mr. Harris spent most of his life deeply involved in the local pop bottling and distributing industry. As a young man he co-founded the Tom Tucker Beverage Co. with his mother and invented Tom Tucker's popular mint ginger ale and Champayno, a nonalcoholic beverage that resembles champagne.

He passed many miles and years driving a sales route in a Chevy coupe with a mannequin, dressed in top hat and tuxedo, seated beside him. His companion was a life-sized version of the Tom Tucker trademark, and the gimmick attracted attention, especially from children.

"He was doing that before they had Mickey Mouse at Disney World," said Marlene Harris, his daughter-in-law.

Mr. Harris retired in 1978, after selling Tom Tucker to a bottling company in Ohio.

Just when it seemed he was settling into retirement, Mr. Harris threw himself back into the business. He went to work with Bowser at Natrona Bottling Co., taking along his Champayno. Soon after, Mr. Harris invented another mint-flavored beverage, Plantation Mint Julep.

Bowser said that Natrona Bottling's survival -- it remains a relatively small, independent operation -- depended on sales of the popular drinks that Mr. Harris invented.

Legend has it that more than a mere bottling business depended on Mr. Harris' inventions. Plantation Mint Julep, in particular, was said to have curative powers.

"If you've ever had heartburn, it's the stuff to drink," said Martha Kwalwasser, an administrator at the assisted living residence at Weinberg Village in Squirrel Hill, where Mr. Harris spent his later years.

Mr. Harris took steps to have Champayno certified kosher so that residents at Weinberg Village -- the former Jewish Home for the Aged -- could enjoy it at his 100th birthday party in January.

Mr. Harris may not have designed his product with heartburn sufferers in mind, but he always made a point of helping people in need.

He organized a program to employ mentally retarded people at Tom Tucker, his son, Leroy, said, long before such programs became common. He also spent time after his first retirement doing volunteer work with elderly patients in nursing and assisted living communities.

When he wasn't helping people or selling pop, Mr. Harris loved to work in his yard in Fox Chapel. Crowned in what his daughter-in-law called "his crumpled, old straw hat," he labored weekly behind an unwieldy Gravely tractor as he mowed more than 6 acres of grass.

Stephen A Zappala Jr., the Allegheny County district attorney, shared a driveway with Mr. Harris for 10 years and recalled watching his children follow Mr. Harris around the yard.

"He was so nice to the kids," Zappala said. "[They] loved him."

He was so loved, friends and relatives say, because Mr. Harris always remained humble in the face of success. His favorite meal was a breakfast of corn flakes, a banana and three prunes, sometimes splurging for a piece of toast.

"People measure their success by the Mercedes Benz that they drive, the number of cars in the driveway, the size of a house, but he didn't care about any of that," said Leroy Harris, of O'Hara. "He measured success by the number of people that he could talk to and make friends with and commiserate with if they had a problem."

In addition to his son, he is survived by a half brother, Ralph Waller, and six grandchildren.

Contributions may be sent to Kollel Learning Center, 5808 Beacon St., Pittsburgh 15217, or to Fox Chapel Chabad, 3 Aspin Court, Pittsburgh 15215.

Jon Vandenburgh can be reached at jvandenburgh@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.

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