Chris Harding: Irreplaceable

Chris Harding, one of the Dorchester Reporter’s most prolific and reliable columnists, died just before Christmas. His loss is felt most dearly, of course, by his relatives and close friends, who laid him to rest last Thursday at St. Teresa’s Parish, the Catholic church on Columbia Road where Chris was active as a parishioner and volunteer.

We will mourn Chris in our own way here at the Reporter, which carried his byline just about every week for more than two decades.

Chris was a reporter for us and for our friends at BNN-TV’s Neighborhood Network News, which airs weeknights. A self-starter who generated his own ideas for stories and lined up his own interviews, Chris had no equal in his passion for tracking the city’s arts and cultural scene at the neighborhood level.

He was on every invite list for the marquee openings in the city’s Theatre District; but he also showed up to galleries and stagings in Dorchester and Roxbury with a regularity that made him unique among the press corps.

Harding— as we referred to him in typical newsroom fashion— was passionate about bringing hard-to-get exposure to painters, sculptors, poets, and playwrights who might otherwise not get any attention beyond their own websites or Facebook pages. And he was equally interested in bringing the arts to our readership, letting his hometown audience in on special discounts and hidden gems.

Martina Jackson noted in her fine eulogy last Thursday that her longtime friend “believed in and was determined to encourage artists and art. He loved the Strand, the Christmas Revels, Shakespeare on Boston Common, concerts at Piers Park, the musical salon on the second floor of a Boston Street triple-decker. And, as chair of the Dorchester Arts Council, Chris was its greatest booster,” she added.

One of the ways that Harding boosted the Dorchester arts scene was by sometimes offering constructive criticism. He was not one to heap insincere praise on less-than-deserving work. His pencil occasionally sharpened itself to note weaknesses in the neighborhood’s arts infrastructure, but there was never a hint of malice in his critiques— only encouragement.

He took pains to find the local angle in every production, lifting up young actors and directors who, like him, were Originally from Dorchester. Just before he was admitted to the hospital in November with what turned out to be a terminal brain tumor, Chris was working on a story about “how Dot sixth graders wrote anti-bullying essays that inspired a world-dance premiere at the Strand.” When he realized he wouldn’t be able to finish the job himself, he urged the Reporter to publicize the show in his absence.

We did. But, it will be impossible to replace Chris Harding in any meaningful way.

Chris was sui generis— one of a kind. Dorchester is a special place, but it’s not like we’ve got a mold lying around for art critics who graduated summa cum laude from Yale and earned a PhD from Harvard.

Or who start and end their days thinking about the next production at Hibernian Hall or the Strand; or about how many kids from TechBoston Academy will be marching in next year’s Dot Day Parade.

Harding was a unique blend of Dorchester street savvy and Ivy League brains; he had a flair for bringing those two worlds together in words and video that made it all make sense somehow. He brought that same recipe to his other passions— cooking for homeless people, teaching Shakespeare to prisoners at South Bay, and working out crossword puzzles with senior students at UMass Boston.

We’re going to miss him— and we’re sure that our readers will, too.

Chris Lovett, the news director at NNN, worked with Harding for 35 years and made this keen observation upon learning of his death: “Chris was a person of many assignments who worked in many channels, but overall in one direction: toward more inclusiveness. His utmost power was to get more of us in the loop, usually through the arts. By joining the fray or just paying attention, we saw more clearly the arts could be anywhere and for anybody. Most of all, he helped us understand the importance of the arts as a connection between people.”

That’s a fine legacy you’ve left us, Chris. Thank you.