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Rufus E. Harris liked to say he was a convicted felon but in this country he was still able to build a bank.
Harris was a twice-convicted moonshiner who learned to become a bricklayer while serving two years in prison. It was that trade, his family says, that allowed Harris, who lives in Canon, near the South Carolina border, to build a legitimate life. Now, 35 years after his second arrest for making white lightning, Harris fulfilled his dream and is a man without a record, thanks to a pardon Wednesday from President Bush.
"He said his goal in life was to clear his name," said his wife, Frankie. "He started [trying to get a pardon] about 10 years ago. I had done give up on this. I figured it was not to be."
But then she got a call telling her of the pardon. She relayed the information to Harris, 72, who is in the last stages of Alzheimer's. "He just smiled," she said.
Royston attorney Rodger Davison said Rufus Harris collected letters of commendation from local leaders and then they sent the pardon request to the Clinton administration. They heard nothing, he said, until Wednesday. "It was a phone call out of the blue," he said.
Bush has issued 60 pardons and sentence commutations.
Former President Clinton granted clemency to 456 people during his eight years in office, including 176 on his last day at the White House, according to statistics collected by the University of Pittsburgh law school.
Some pardons, like the one President Ford gave Richard Nixon in 1974, protect recipients from going to jail. But Bush has granted clemency mainly to allow people who committed relatively minor offenses and served their sentences long ago to clear their names.
Tim Harris said his father, who had five children, was like many others in the North Georgia hills and moonshined out of necessity.
"He told me over and over that you couldn't find a job here," said Tim. "It was the only way you could survive."
Tim said his father was mostly close-mouthed about his past occupation. But he had opened up a bit in recent years.
"He'd hide it in a gully near a creek but also near a road so he'd not have to tote the sugar far," Tim said. "He drove a lot of cars and would leave them on the side of the road if [he was detected by revenue agents]. He'd just drive a $50 car and leave it."
The second arrest scared him straight.
"He was told to pick up something other than moonshining or they'd put him away again for good," his son said. Rufus Harris then built several local buildings, including a bank in Lavonia, operated eight chicken houses and ran a van customizing shop.
"He's done real good with his life." His son said. "I drive by the bank every day and think of him. I'm proud to say: 'My dad did that.' "
I'm surprised the president would issue pardons for such minor (and random) crimes like that. Why waste his time? Still kind of cool of him I guess though.