Nathan Harmon broke down in tears as he told the crowd at Rezac Auditorium Wednesday evening how he accidentally killed his friend 10 years ago in a drunken-driving incident.
Harmon, the No. 1 booked school speaker in the United States in 2018, spoke about that night during the last of five presentations he gave to the Manhattan-Ogden school district community Wednesday about bullying, suicide and mental health issues.
The crash had been the culmination of bad decision after bad decision, he said, going back to high school. After his parents told him they were getting divorced, Harmon said he started wearing a mask, acting like everything was all right in his world.
“If I could have put a picture in every single one of your hands, a picture that described my life, the picture would be me sitting on the beach with pristine white sand and the ocean waters would be crystal clear and aqua blue, the sunset would be yellow and oranges — the picture would be majestic,” Harmon told the crowd, waxing poetic about how his life changed in high school. “It would look like a social media where the world looks so perfect.
“But below the ocean waters was darkness in the depths with the predators and prey, and I was screaming, but I was silent, and I wore my mask,” Harmon continued. “And the challenge we face is that many of us wear this mask.”
A straight-A student, Harmon said he walked away from good friends, and peer pressure led him to skip school and try drugs and alcohol. He started harming himself, initially because it was a desperate plea for people to recognize his presence, but then it became a habit and a coping mechanism he couldn’t break.
He still remembers the first time he compromised and gave in to the pressure to fit in. That marked the start of his addictions, which he likened to feeding a bear cub — tolerable and even innocent initially, but destructive as it grows.
“At the beginning, it seemed so innocent, so harmless, everyone’s doing it,” Harmon said, “but when you begin to feed the bear cub and the bear cub grows up, it will kill you.”
Harmon was kicked out of school at 18 years old, and that same year, he climbed a ladder, put a rope around his neck and was close to suicide. He said it wasn’t so much a wish to die, but a feeling of helplessness in the face of all of his life’s troubles, that drove him up the ladder.
But he didn’t do it, and through five more troublesome years, he muddled through the life he had fallen into, until July 17, 2009, when he was drinking at a bar with some friends and called his friend and designated driver Priscilla Owens to take him to an afterparty. But somewhere in the chaos and confusion of leaving the bar, the keys ended up in Harmon’s hands.
“I vividly remember when she said these words, they echoed and rang, and she said ‘Tree!’” Harmon said. “Then I was in a helicopter. Then I was in a hospital bed in Indiana. I woke up hours later and my mother was next to me and a police officer was asking me questions because her cell phone was locked. Her ID was in her purse, she was fighting for her life for hours, and nobody knew.”
Owens had been ejected from the car and had a broken neck, and the hospital staff told Harmon it wasn’t looking good. The police report showed there had been no skid marks or signs of braking — Harmon had made no attempt to slow down before hitting the tree. Harmon’s mother told him that his life was about to change.
Looking back, Harmon said he was surprised the police let him leave the hospital, but at home, he waited in anguish for news on his friend. The police and hospital wouldn’t tell him anything, since he wasn’t family, and his only source of updates on his friend was the newspaper.
“I stayed up all night, and I was making deals with myself waiting for that paper to come — I would change, I would be different,” Harmon said, fighting tears. “I was making deals with anyone who could hear me that night. And at 4 a.m., everything slowed down like a movie. The paperman came, he rolled the window down, I jumped up, grabbed it and ripped it open and read the three words and the three words said this: ‘Crash victim … dies.’
“At 23, my choices and decisions killed my friend,” Harmon continued. “And if I had gone back to when I was 16 years old and I began to feed that stupid, lying, little, cuddly grizzly bear, that little cub that seemed so innocent but brought on addiction — if I would have known seven years later, I never would have started feeding it.”
Harmon was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But before the court dates and just three days after the wreck, Owens’ parents wanted him to call them. He didn’t know what to say, but he knew he had to make that tough call.
Before letting him speak, though, her parents told him that they didn’t think that one dumb choice should destroy two lives. They acknowledged Harmon’s responsibility for the wreck but forgave him for it, and asked him to do two things: please don’t let their daughter die for nothing, and make the world a better place.
In prison, Harmon said it would have been easy to give up, but he came in with the mission given to him by Owens’ parents, and on his bathroom mirror, he wrote three new words, “Change the world.”
Using those words as guide, Owens changed his life. He overcame his addictions and began to lead Bible studies in prison, later taking part in an Indiana pilot program that allowed him to speak at schools and conferences in the area about his experiences. Harmon said the state decided he was more effective outside of prison, so three years later, he was released.
Ten years after the accident, Owens said he still keeps those same words on his bathroom mirror. He said he hopes he can offer his experiences to help kids learn from his mistakes before they make the same ones.
He asked parents and teachers to allow themselves to become vulnerable with their kids, because that vulnerability is reciprocated. He identified five traits — transparency, accountability, making good choices, hard work and valuing people — to instill in kids.
Manhattan Konza Morning Rotary Club, Mahattan Noon Rotary Club and the Rotary Heart of America District’s E-Club sponsored Harmon’s speeches in Manhattan, in partnership with the K-State Rotaract and Manhattan Interact clubs.
Debra Rodenbaugh-Schaub, project chair of the Manhattan Konza club, said about 3,000 people heard Harmon speak over his four lectures at the high school campuses and middle schools prior to the community lecture Wednesday night at Manhattan High.
“To think of the impact on that number of people, even if you can just turn one person’s life around with that message, it really is worth the effort,” Schaub said. “I think we will see new behaviors from students and adults in contemplation of situations where we can react and figure out how we want to project ourselves.”
Taylor Claussen, a junior member of Manhattan High’s Interact club, said it was amazing to hear from a speaker like Harmon.
“It was just beautiful hearing him and how he doesn’t speak to us, but with us,” she said. “He doesn’t preach to us, and he connects with the students because he believes in what he’s saying.”