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Saturday, July 7, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
Ill owner of diner dies hours after visit by president she loved
By Stephanie Warsmith, Rick Armon and John Higgins
Akron Beacon Journal
AKRON, Ohio — The Rev. Jesse Jackson and his son have stopped at Ann's Place. So have several professional football players.
For Josephine "Ann" Harris, however, none came close to President Obama visiting her West Akron restaurant. He was her hero.
"You know it's great," Harris, 70, said Friday morning, shortly after Obama left her family-owned restaurant.
Harris, who didn't know Obama planned to visit until earlier Friday, sat at a booth with a wet towel around her neck.
"He treated us like one of the brothers," she said. "He hugged all of us and ... got his picture taken with all of us."
Within hours of Obama's visit, Harris, who had been ill for some time, complained of fatigue and a tingling feeling. She was taken to Akron General Medical Center, where she died about 11:15 a.m., according to the Summit County Medical Examiner's Office.
Her relatives and customers, saddened by her death, were pleased she was able to meet the president.
"I'm sure this was her highlight," said Frankie Adkins, Harris' sister, who lives in Tulsa, Okla., and had just heard about her sister's sudden death.
"She loved Obama."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama later called Harris' daughter, Wilma Parsons, from Air Force One to express "his sorrow and his condolences. It was a very sad event. He was honored to meet (Harris) this morning and passed on his feeling that the whole family is in his thoughts and prayers."
Obama's trip to Ann's Place was his first stop in the second day of a bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania. He stayed overnight at the Hilton in Fairlawn, Ohio.
Obama's motorcade arrived at Ann's Place about 8:30 a.m.
"What's going on?" he asked after bounding off his campaign bus and entering the small diner-style establishment.
Obama ordered two eggs over easy, bacon, wheat toast, orange juice and water. At the suggestion of waitress Toni Watkins, who has worked at Ann's Place for 23 years, he added grits.
It was his second breakfast of the day; he had ordered salmon and sea bass from the Hilton.
Obama went around the restaurant, shaking hands and greeting each customer.
"Keep up the good work," one customer called out.
"Thanks for joining me," Obama said, as he sat at the counter with three Goodyear workers who were invited to dine with him.
Rick Nixon, a 20-year Goodyear employee, talked trade and tariffs with Obama, but also discussed the Fourth of July and their families.
When Nixon mentioned his son is getting married Saturday, Obama wrote a note to the couple that read: "To Lance and Erica, I wish you a lifetime of happiness. Congratulations. — Barack Obama"
Harris had no idea Obama would make a stop at her diner, which she had owned for about 30 years. Parsons picked up her mother at home, and they hurried to the restaurant.
Harris and Obama hugged in the parking lot.
Obama's was the diner's first presidential visit, though other notable people have visited over the years.
"None of the other ones came in 30 years," Harris said of past presidents. "We was happy for him to choose us for breakfast."
Harris worked daily at the restaurant until January, when she fell. She later had a heart attack, a stroke and then another heart attack.
Harris, who mentioned during an interview Friday that she hadn't been feeling well, was at her Copley, Ohio, home not long after Obama's visit when she complained about not feeling well. As paramedics took her to the hospital, she went into full cardiac arrest.
They attempted to revive her, but she was pronounced dead at the hospital, according to the medical examiner's office.
News of her death quickly spread across the country, reaching Adkins in Tulsa.
"It was just so fast," said Adkins, who took on the role of family spokeswoman after Harris' death drew national media attention.
Ann Harris and her two sisters started the restaurant together. It has remained a family enterprise, with several generations working there.
"Ann is really the matriarch of the whole thing," Adkins said. "She was the backbone."
Adkins said other famous people had visited Ann's Place over the years, but those occurrences "were not like the president."
"They did not extend to caring for one person the way we all follow Obama," she said.
Faithful patrons of the restaurant arrived Friday afternoon to find it closed as they learned of Harris' death.
"So sorry; what a nice lady," said Perry "P.J." Johnson. "She made you feel respected, and you respected her. Even now — I live in Florida — when I come back home, I eat breakfast here every day."
Another regular, Ronald Parkman, stopped by the restaurant with his wife, Valencia.
Parkman said he usually sits in a section known as the "Liars Club," where patrons are challenged to tell the best whopper.
He said Harris made everyone feel like they were more than just a customer. "She treated you like one of the family," he said.
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