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NORTH KINGSTOWN—Howard ‘Zeke’ Harris was a man who had endured a difficult youth to become one of the most endearing and well-known members of the North Kingstown community. On Sept. 15, 1982, the furniture store owner and friend with many was murdered by James Hughes, who is scheduled for a parole board hearing on June 9.
Harris’ daughter, Kay Cutting, finds it hard to speak about why Hughes, a heroin addict who brutally murdered a man who tried to help him, should remain incarcerated. “We have no closure,” said Cutting of her sixth time going before the state parole board.
“We go through the whole thing every three years, and it just brings back everything that happened that day.”
On that September day in 1982, Hughes robbed $70 from the then 79 year-old Harris, who offered $20. When Harris stepped out of the furniture store, he noticed Hughes run in and discovered him searching through his desk. When confronted, the then 31 year-old heroin addict beat Harris to death with a hammer. He subsequently fled the scene with Harris’ truck after robbing him.
“People fear, if he should get out, what might happen because he knew my dad and made a decision to take his life,” said Cutting. “He had known him since he was six years old. My dad tried to help him, but it didn’t work.”
“Jamie was issued a life sentence, but we also have a life sentence because we have to go and face it every three years.”
Cutting remembers her father as a man who had worked in many businesses, from traveling salesman to carpentry to business owner of ‘Zeke’s Exchange’, but treated everyone he met as though he knew them all of his life.
“He was very honest and hardworking,” said Cutting. “When he went up north to get the furniture, people in the warehouse would leave the key and he would get it and bring it back. He would leave a note, and they knew that they could trust him.”
Harris was particularly watchful over North Kingstown’s youth, helping any child with their problems in school or at home. He even set up a room in his furniture store where local children could go and work on homework, all with guidance from Zeke and cookies which his wife made.
“He was very interested in education for the children, giving them everything they needed to have a good start in life,” said Cutting of her father. “He had a bicycle that he put together for the children around the village, and he had a basketball hoop outside his furniture shop.”
“The kids just loved being around my dad,” she continued. “I learned about all these stories every day when I was working the furniture shop. It was unbelievable what he gave and did for others.”
Cutting discovered that her father’s graciousness towards children was a result of his own upbringing as an orphan left abandoned in Providence.
“He was abandoned and taken in by a family by the name of Johnson, so he thought that was his last name,” she said. “I don’t know how he found out about his parents, but he signed his name as Howard Johnson in the National Guard, [and] the Johnson family didn’t adopt hm.”
“His life was one of giving and helping others, so he never complained, and his whole beginning in life was never really talked about in the family,” Cutting added.
After her father was murdered, Cutting and her family assumed operations at ‘Zeke’s Exchange,’ although she sold the property 16 years later. Harris’ name adorns a number of monuments and playgrounds throughout town in memory of his contributions to the North Kingstown community, but now Cutting and her family will continue fighting to keep his killer behind bars.
“We have had such an overwhelming response this time,” said Cutting. “His death resounded all over. People were in shock because it was like when President Kennedy was killed.”
“So many people knew my dad over the years, loved him once they met him, and never forgot him,” she added.