Airport icon remembered for lessons, many friends

When Harris Purnell died Feb. 1, the community lost a beloved ambassador, a familiar smiling face that welcomed travelers at the airport.

Purnell was well-known for running a taxi service at the Salisbury-Ocean City-Wicomico Airport more than 40 years. He worked for aviation pioneer and executive Richard Henson’s original airline for 25 years, retired, then continued running a taxi service.

SDT024505-1_20150206“He’s been a great ambassador for many years. He was a great guy who got some great awards, even from the state house. He loved that airport,” his son and oldest child, Frank, said.

Purnell died while traveling with his wife of 55 years, Addie Harris. It was their first vacation in a dozen years and they were returning from California, where the 78-year-old Purnell was visiting his brother. He became ill on the plane, and the pilot made an emergency landing in Memphis, where he died at the hospital.

“He had a little history of heart trouble,” his son said, explaining his father suffered an aortic aneurism a few years ago, recovered and returned to work.

“He always had flying rights, and he was flying standby. He and my mother were the last two to get on the plane, so they did not get to sit together,” Frank Purnell said.

She noticed him come out of the airplane restroom, stumble, lean against the wall, then sit down. When she waved at him and he failed to acknowledge her, she rushed to him and shook him, but he didn’t respond.

“He had a pulse at the airport. They took him to a hospital … and he passed there. It was a shock to everyone, not only my family but he knew a lot of people. He had a lot of friends and they have really supported us,” his son said.

Purnell was hired by US Airways, and originally Henson Aviation, in February 1974. He tagged luggage, put it in a cart, loaded it onto the plan, used a machine to supply power to the aircraft, helped passengers on and off planes, made sure the craft started and directed it on the runway.

“He started when it was Henson, then Piedmont to US Air and now US Airways. He went through the whole chain,” his son said, adding his father had no plans to retire from driving taxi.

Bob Bryant, airport manager, met Purnell when he was hired 22 years ago.

“He was a great guy, always happy, always smiling, always offering to lend assistance or lend a hand. He welcomed people to the area and really was an ambassador of the people who came to this airport,” he said.

His son characterized him as “a caring, loving person, a giving person.”

“He definitely was a giver. He taught us all about the good things in life. He taught his sons how to be young men, to take care of ourselves and our families. He gave us a lot of good advice,” said his son, who runs a shuttle service at the airport.

Purnell’s funeral was Monday at Emmanuel Wesleyan Church.

“He had friends from all over. Some of his friends from England got the news that he died and they said they would not miss the funeral. He met them flying into the airport,” Frank Purnell said.

Among his friends was the late chicken magnate Frank Perdue.

“They were A-1 buddies,” Purnell’s son said.

“Frank Perdue told his son Jim he didn’t want anyone to drive for his last ride but Harris and when Frank died, my father drove the hearse. My father had them give him his own personal parking space, so when he came to the airport he didn’t have far to get to the building,” his son said.

“They were such good buddies that Frank would call him on an early morning and say, ‘Harris, can you meet me for breakfast?’  That’s how close they were.

“He touched a lot of people’s hearts.  I do mean a lot of people’s hearts.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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