TUPELO • Greg Harkins described his lifetime of being able to do what he loves, which is making high quality rocking chairs, as simply a “good life,” but that may be underselling it a little bit.
After being able to gift his iconic rocking chairs to six presidents, with the most recent being President Donald Trump during his rally in Tupelo last Friday, Harkins has lived a life that stretches far beyond his hometown of Canton.
“It (is) humbling, is what it is,” Harkins said.
Harkins, 67, has built chairs for 47 years and owns Harkins Chairs. He first learned the craft under the apprenticeship of Tom Bell, whom he described as a “master of the craft” who worked until he was 90. Harkins credits both Bell and his ancestors who came from Ireland.
“The fact that we’re seventh generation Mississippi Irish Catholics to me is huge. There were no Catholics in central Mississippi, and we landed in New Orleans and worked our way up to Jackson digging ditches. Then being Irish Catholic, we weren’t welcome on either front,” Harkins said.
His own family inspired him in several ways. He said both his grandfather and father were hard workers who taught him how to work. He said his grandfather was a restaurant owner who often worked long hours, and his father taught him not only how to be hard and tough, but how to cry and give thanks. However, it is his mother whom he describes as being the one who he owes so much to and instilling life lessons into him.
The chair Harkins made for Trump is made of all American products. He used bodock wood from Pontotoc and also materials harvested from his backyard. He explained that the chair starts out canary yellow, but would eventually oxidize and become dark as mahogany. This is the third time he has tried to arrange giving a chair to Trump, and he said on the last visit, he was told by Gov. Phil Bryant that while it was too short notice to give it to him at that time, they would arrange it for the next trip Trump made to Mississippi.
Both Sen. Roger Wicker and Bryant escorted Harkins to meet Trump, who did not get to see the chair but did sign a photo of the chair for Harkins. Harkins said the chair will be transported to the White House at a later date, escorted by either himself or Wicker.
“I had a few minutes to talk to (Trump), and that went real well. I told him about the classes and teaching,” Harkins said. “I showed him my Donald Trump socks and asked him if he had some Greg Harkins socks, and he laughed.”
Harkins keeps an album full of memories of the presidents who received his chairs: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George Bush Jr. Harkins has also been able to make chairs for famous Mississippi natives such as Oprah Winfrey and Morgan Freeman.
Harkins also has a plethora of memories to go along with those photos. For example, Harkins said it was his banker who gifted his first presidential chair to Carter, and he did not find out about it until later. He remembers that Clinton sent him letters after he received his chair, and considers Reagan and 44th Vice President Dan Quayle as two of his favorite recipients of his chairs.
He’s been to the White House twice. The first visit was after Reagan was gifted a chair at the Neshoba County Fair. Harkins said Reagan promised to invite him to the White House if elected. At the White House, Reagan arrived late and seemed aloof at first, Harkins said, until Reagan eventually warmed up and spoke with him for over an hour. Later, he would discover that the U.S. was in the middle of invading Grenada during the conversation and joked that was probably why. The second visit occurred when George W. Bush was gifted the chair by the City of Jackson and told Harkins when he was elected, he would invite him to the White House.
Harkins said life has been good for him, but he wants to focus on giving back as much as he can and creating a legacy by finding an apprentice. His current focus is preserving St. Anne Church, which is where several generations of his family have attended; and working on Greg Harkins’ School of Arts and Crafts, which features chair-making classes, cooking, and other art classes. Harkins also wants to start a mission to raise money for artists and musicians in need.
“What I have done with my life is exactly what Donald Trump is talking about. In this country, if you’re big enough, you can do whatever you want to do,” Harkins said. “You have to have faith in yourself, and it’s not a matter of someone taking care of you. It’s a matter of you taking care of everything that comes along.”