PATERSON, NJ – A beloved member of the Paterson community, and one of the district’s greatest athletes, has been forever memorialized with the renaming of the basketball court at Public School No. 13 named in his honor.
At a Saturday ceremony, with members of his family on hand and joined by community leaders, elected officials, and clergy, school officials unveiled a plaque and declared that the space will now be named the Robert “Tootie” Harrell Court.
Harrell, a member of the Eastside Hall of Fame. and a longtime district official, died in 2018 at the age of 82. A native Patersonian, he was remembered as an exemplary athlete, a true competitor, a record-breaking football player, and track star, and a leading scorer in basketball at Eastside High School. During all four years of high school, Harrell was a three varsity letter man. In 1952, he was awarded the Thom McAn Most Valuable Player of the Year award for high school football. Six years later, he was awarded the Old Timers AA of Greater Paterson Harry B. Gourley Memorial Local Athlete Award.
“Today we honor a great man who truly was a pillar of the Paterson community,” Paterson Board of Education President Kenneth L. Simmons said, adding that the local legend taught the children of Paterson, including his own children, by his own example. “He showed us all the great rewards that can be reaped by demanding the best from yourself. And he demonstrated to us that when you raise other people up, you will never be forgotten.”
BOE Commissioner Vince Arrington added that “Tootie Harrell was a man of integrity and honor” but that those qualities did not only reflect on himself but on the City of Paterson as well. “He literally made Paterson a better place through the life he lived, and that should inspire us to do the same.”
Harrell’s athleticism, sportsmanship and sense of community all started on the School 13 basketball court. On most days when he was growing up, Harrell could be found on the court at 10:00 a.m. and he would often stay there until long after dark with only the few area streetlights to light the court.
“When young student-athletes walk onto this basketball court, and they see the plaque that bears the name of Robert “Tootie” Harrell, and they ask, ‘Who was he?’; it will be up to us to tell them that he was a great student-athlete who drew crowds to this basketball court with his stunning ability, who faithfully served his community encouraging young people to be all that they could be, who was a devoted family man, and who has been remembered by his family, friends and the great City of Paterson as the perfect example of a life well lived many days after he passed away,” said Paterson Superintendent of Schools Eileen F. Shafer.
Harrell was never alone on the court, often playing alongside and against other players from the neighborhood like Ray Lyde, Arnold Kuykendall, Andrew Muckle, Colbert Currin, Walt Lee Rembert, and Albert Farrell – all of whom were from families who continue to be prominent in Paterson. One player, Frederick “Rick” Criscitelli grew up and was elected mayor of Hawthorne. Another one, Charles Riccobono, became a doctor.
When Harrell and his friends played, the School 13 court became a basketball proving ground. The players were of different ethnic backgrounds and ages. They bested each other on the court with seasoned players teaching the younger ones, and the younger players showing off what they had learned for the seasoned stars.
The games became events that drew people from all over the city, making for a crowd that was as integrated as the players on the court.
In his later years, Harrell continued playing basketball. He played on several city league teams, at the YMCA and around Passaic County. He also played fastpitch softball. Because he valued fitness, he was an avid jogger who was often seen on his long-distance treks. He could be seen jogging from Paterson along Route 4 to Garden State Plaza, or to Willowbrook Mall, or into Montclair.
Harrell was known to put his running abilities in his 30 years working for the Paterson Board of Education as a truancy officer. He was famous for his speed, his ability to chase kids, and get them back into school.
He retired in 1997 and in the same year he was awarded the “Sports Hall of Fame” from the Old Timers Athletic Association of Greater Paterson in recognition of his character, integrity and sportsmanship manifested in the sports world. He also received the Harry B. Gourley Memorial Local Athlete Award.
Harrell is survived by his wife, Constance, whom he married in 1969, and sons Robert Jr., Terrance and Justin, as well as five grandchildren, two nieces, two grandnieces and a host of relatives and friends.