Kent State alumnus remembered for passion for journalism, love of life

Gene Harbrecht at the 9/11 memorial in New York City in 2019.

Molly Heideman, Reporter

Gene Harbrecht kept a jar of pretzels on his desk to encourage conversation with his colleagues. Social by nature, Gene was passionate about the world around him and worked to provide the most accurate, high-quality news stories to readers.

Harbrecht was killed July 30 after his truck was caught up in a street race in Santa Ana, California. The crash is being investigated as a potential hit-and-run. One suspect is charged with second-degree murder and another is charged with vehicular manslaughter. Gene was 67.

Gene, who worked as an editor and journalist at the Orange County Register since 1984, started his career at the Daily Kent Stater around 1975. Patt, his wife of 34 years, remembered him as a reliable and goofy person who would do anything for her. He was a passionate and dedicated husband.

“When he moved here to California, I was living in Seattle going to the… University of Washington, then he would drive up on a weekend, and that’s like a 17-hour drive,” Patt said. “We were just crazy about each other.”

Gene and Patt were season ticket holders for Los Angeles Angels games, and Gene took her to her first baseball game in Cleveland. The pair loved to travel, and one of Patt’s favorite trips was going to Rome with him, her sister and niece.

“We all just would hand the map to him and rely on him… we would follow him wherever he was,” Patt said. “It was fun traveling with him.”

Patt remembers her husband for his lively spirit and sense of humor.

“He ate way too much candy,” Patt said. “He used to fall asleep with M&Ms in his mouth.”

CP Smith, one of Gene’s closest friends and former editor at the Register, described him as a man with “intellectual passion.”

“Gene never gave up on being dialed into his world and really engaged by it, attuned to it and driven by what was going on, was always interested in life, which is kind of a cool quality to have your whole life,” Smith said.

Gene started at the Record-Courier in Ravenna after graduating from Kent State in 1977. He then worked at the Tribune-Chronicle in Warren, where he worked with his college roommate and former pop music writer at the Arizona Republic, Larry Rodgers.

“I was impressed from day one when I met Gene, just how dedicated he was,” Rodgers said. “Even back in his college days, to his news reporting and to getting a great story and getting all the facts right and everything that’s required, but just from day one he was such a hard worker and so dedicated to journalism.”

One of Rodgers’ favorite memories of Gene was finishing up production at The Daily Kent Stater on Thursday nights and going to The Stone Jug, having a couple beers and listening to live music.

Gene loved music, especially country, including artists like Jerry Jeff Walker and Waylon Jennings. He even got to interview his childhood idol Gene Autry while working at the Register.

“He did have a little twinkle in his eye, and he did like to have a good time,” Rodgers said. “He was very passionate about music.”

Gene moved out to California in 1984 and started work at the Register. Known for his superior news judgment and eye for accuracy, Gene was a key player in the newsroom.

“What mattered most was doing the job professionally, doing the job really well… and making sure that readers, whether it was online or in print, got the best, most truthful and good account of things that they could in making sense of their world,” Smith said.

Gene wrote a story about country singer Jann Browne when she was first starting out. When they would go to her shows, Browne called Gene “the guy who made my little career.”

When he was at Kent State, Gene worked for The Daily Kent Stater in a number of different roles, including news editor. In 1977, he was tear gassed while covering the protests over the building of the Memorial Gym Annex.

“He wasn’t just someone like a journalist who was dispassionately watching what was going on in his life at times, but he was very engaged too,” Smith said.

Gene’s best man at his wedding and college roommate, Jim Sled, cherishes the memory of going to the Water Street Saloon and listening to country music. Sled said Gene loved when the fiddler would play Orange Blossom Special.

“We were so young and the music (was) so lively,” Sled said. “That’s how I always want to remember him. Enjoying great live music and letting himself go.”

Gene recently revisited his time at Kent State by writing about the 50th anniversary of the May 4 shootings. Todd Harmonson, senior editor of the Orange County Register, edited the piece. Gene came to Harmonson and expressed interest in writing it, and Harmonson was on board.

“It was just so well done,” Harmonson said. “I enjoyed that experience because I hadn’t edited one of his stories before.”

Gene was a hands-on editor and enjoyed working with young reporters to help them build their skill sets. Smith said he was known at the paper for being grumpy, but with a very big heart.

“He had a curmudgeonly veneer,” Smith said. “He was very professional, but at the same time he had a great sense of humor.”

Gene’s love for sports, especially the Angels and Ohio sports teams, showed in his everyday interactions. Frequenting spring training and games, Gene loved going to any game he could. Harmonson shared a story of going to an Angels game with Gene and other Register staffers.

“I bought a bunch of tickets for the people on staff to go (to the game),” Harmonson said. “Gene had gone and taken the day off… and was sitting in one spot. He moved over to join us and as soon as he did, somebody hit a home run that landed in the seat he had just vacated.”

Friends, family and colleagues held a memorial remembrance for Gene in the Register parking lot. Keith Sharon, reporter for the Orange County Register, said they wore clothes inspired by Gene and had a playlist of songs that reminded them of him.

“We had people drive up in the parking lot and parked their cars in a half circle, and we put a speaker in the middle and we played songs inspired by Gene…,” Sharon said. “At one point… their song when they met in the 1970s was by The Kinks (Ducks on a Wall)… when (Patt) heard that she started dancing.”

Susan Jacobs, a former colleague of Gene’s, believes his expectations and editor skills made her a better journalist.

“It’s just very sad to lose someone who was so good and passionate about what he did, it will be very hard for him to be replaced in that newsroom,” Jacobs said. “He’s one of those newspaper people from the old days that’s very hard to replace. They don’t make them like that anymore.”

Contact Molly Heideman at [email protected]