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Napoleon Harris seeks Illinois Senate seat to put Dixmoor back in the game

NapoleHarris his grandmother Josephine Bowman stkitchen her Dixmoor home where she helped raise Harris his five siblings — three biological

Napoleon Harris and his grandmother, Josephine Bowman, stand in the kitchen of her Dixmoor home, where she helped raise Harris and his five siblings — three biological and two later adopted. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times Photos

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Updated: February 15, 2012 8:10AM

Standing outside his childhood home near the corner of Wood Street and 143rd in Dixmoor, former Northwestern and NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris remembers the vitality of his neighborhood.

Stanley’s Store, where his grandmother would call ahead, then have Harris pick up meat for dinner. Papa Green’s, where the namesake ran a candy store — flush with a Slushee machine — out of his garage. And the Wyman-Gordon plant, which employed hundreds and produced parts for spy planes and fighter jets.

On a recent Wednesday, Harris scans the area and sees desolation.

Shuttered houses. No signs of development or advancement.

‘‘It’s tough, man,’’ he says. ‘‘My heart is invested here. Without Dixmoor, I wouldn’t be Napoleon Harris. To see a community that once was vibrant and was truly a pillar of the south suburban area on the decline is disheartening.

‘‘That’s why I want to be a part of bringing this area back.’’

After seven NFL seasons, Harris, 32, is shifting to a new career.

This one, though, is personal.

He’s in the running for state senator of Illinois’ 15th District, where he grew up and his many relatives still live. He’s not shying away from his football past, but he’s focusing more on his business and political future.

The owner of two Beggars Pizza locations, including one in Harvey, Harris wants to help revitalize the area, luring back businesses and families and emphasizing the schools.

It’s been awhile.

There are plenty of vacant lots, none bigger than Dixie Square Mall, where a scene from ‘‘The Blues Brothers’’ was filmed in 1979.

Those in the community are thrilled about Harris’ candidacy.

‘‘People go away and make those big bucks, and they don’t come back,’’ says Nina Graham, who was Harris’ teacher at Rosa Parks Middle School. ‘‘But he did, and it says so much about his character. Given the opportunity, I’m convinced he’ll make a significant difference.’’

As he walked around Dixmoor, Harris bumped into Edward Alexander outside the Speedmart convenience store. They hugged and reminisced about better times.

‘‘Everybody’s Tebowing. I’m Napo-ing,’’ says Alexander, a carpenter. ‘‘I’ve known him since he was a little boy. He makes us so proud.’’

Grandma’s house

On a recent visit, Harris’ grandmother, Josephine Bowman, was home alone. That rarely was the case for most of the 49 years she’s lived in the modest, three-bedroom, one-bathroom house.

Her husband, Benjamin Bowman, who died two years ago, was a pastor, and they had 19 children. Harris’ mother, Brenda, was the second oldest.

Asked how many people lived in the house when he was growing up there, Napoleon Harris struggled to count, asking his grandmother for assistance. They finally agreed on a number: 17.

Josephine is polite and soft-spoken, but she ruled her household and didn’t put up with backtalk or misconduct. Children were expected to excel in school, and they were to stay out trouble. None were spared the rod.

All 19 of her children attended college, though one died while enrolled.

‘‘We couldn’t spend a night at anybody’s house,’’ Brenda Harris says. ‘‘And everything we did centered around the church.’’

There was strength in numbers, though. The Bowman children could have intense games of tag or touch football without needing any other neighborhood kids. Napoleon Harris fondly recalled playing in the back room, which featured two steel-post bunk beds.

‘‘I feel like a giant in this room now,’’ he says. ‘‘But back in the day, I felt like it was a mini-mansion.’’

And Josephine Bowman’s house was always in order. The living room sofas are encased in plastic, and a weathered, oversized Bible sits prominently on the dining room table.

‘‘Ms. Bowman is the backbone of the family,” Graham says. ‘‘[Napoleon] was taught family values and respect.’’

The campaign

The Senate seat is open because the Rev. James Meeks, who held it since 2003, has retired. Campaign manager Phil Molfese doesn’t worry about Harris’ political inexperience, noting he already has embraced many of the demands.

‘‘Napoleon has a work ethic that’s hard to teach a candidate,’’ Molfese says. ‘‘He always has time to do what needs to be done. He’s a guy who is used to working hard.’’

A few weeks ago, Harris accepted an invitation from businessman Michael Griffin, who’s part of a group that’s building a Dixie Kitchen on the Calumet River in the Riverdale Marina. While he’d heard of Harris the football player, Griffin was more impressed with something else.

‘‘He’s from here,’’ Griffin said, “and he understands what it’s going to take to bring businesses back because he’s a businessman.’’

One who isn’t averse to risks. Harris employs some whom others deem unemployable: ex-cons and those on welfare. At the Beggars Pizza in Harvey, the employees are grateful for his hands-on approach and his commitment to people from the area.

When he came in for an interview two years ago, Jason Jones was commuting two hours to work at a McDonald’s on Chicago’s West Side. Jones impressed Harris with his desire and was given the job — and asked to start right away. Harris personally trained him, showing him how to make the pizzas and sandwiches and stressing the importance of cleanliness.

‘‘He’s given me an opportunity to be a stand-up citizen,’’ Jones says, ‘‘and I appreciate everything he’s done for me. He’s my hero.’’

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