Celebrating the Life of Founder Don Harris

The Harris Family | March 2024

Dear Friends,

Our beloved Don Harris, founder of La Tienda, passed away peacefully at his home on Saturday, March 16th, soon after celebrating his 88th birthday.

In 1965, as a young chaplain in the U.S. Navy, Don stepped ashore in Valencia in the midst of the exuberant Las Fallas celebration. It was a moment that profoundly shaped his life. A product of a difficult childhood, Don was deeply impressed with the Spanish people, especially their strong family ties and how they treasure their children. At every market stall, tapas bar and shop he visited he was greeted warmly and embraced into the community. He felt like he had discovered his true home. Thus began a love affair that lasted the rest of his life.

Over the next sixty years, Don traveled to every corner of Spain, creating lifelong friendships and finding delight in every town and village he visited. An afficionado of Romanesque art and architecture, he delighted in visiting many of Spain’s ancient churches and grand cathedrals. A man of deep and generous faith, he was moved by the extraordinary Holy Week processions of Spain. He particularly loved that these expressions of solemn observance were the work of families and hermandades (brotherhoods) and were a culmination of a year-long effort that bonded the community together.

In the early 1970s, Don and his wife Ruth moved their young family to Spain. Stationed at the Rota Naval Base, they chose to live off-base in El Puerto de Santa Maria, one of the sherry towns in deepest Andalucía. He loved visiting the market there, talking with vendors and browsing the fresh seafood and vegetables from the area. He returned to this market throughout his life. Decades later, he connected with the same “churro lady” that had served him her hot, crunchy delights so long ago.

While he was a chaplain in the Navy, Don founded CREDO, a program for military members and their families to provide a community of support based on God’s unconditional love. Having already helped tens of thousands, CREDO remains active and vibrant across the U.S. Navy. For most people, such an important and meaningful accomplishment would be enough of an achievement, but Don was not done yet!

After a 27-year career in the Navy, retiring as a Captain, Don moved with his family to Williamsburg, Virginia, where he became the Episcopal chaplain to his alma mater, the College of William and Mary. (All three of his sons graduated from the college, along with two of his daughters-in-law.) Shortly after, he retired and contemplated the next chapter of his life.

Family being the center of his life, he talked with his wife and sons about what they might do together. Our shared love of Spain became the inspiration, beginning an adventure that would last the next thirty years. First, we decided to sell gorgeous Spanish tiles of Mozarabic design to our local community. With support from the family, Don and his son, Jonathan, started selling tiles out of their basement, and eventually opened a small shop in town.

Meanwhile, Don’s eldest son, Tim, founded a groundbreaking internet company, facilitating golf tee times online. With his help, we launched the Tienda.com website (one year after Amazon.com began!), selling tiles and a few items from Spain and shipping them to customers across the country from our garage. In 1997, we posted a photo of a Serrano ham, which was not yet allowed in the U.S., and asked if anyone was interested in receiving a jamón when it became available. Soon we had a list of hundreds of afficionados waiting for to hear news of Spain’s iconic ham.

Every month, Don wrote an email sharing news about the quest for jamón, but also writing stories about his love of Spain and his experiences connecting with the Spanish people. He gathered a following of Spain enthusiasts who were inspired by his knowledge and passion. He loved interacting with our customers. When we opened the La Tienda retail store and restaurant in town, he reveled in talking with customers for hours about Spain, food and their life experiences.

Over the years, La Tienda has grown, but our mission will always be inspired by Don’s abiding love for the Spanish people and culture. Don connected deeply with partners in Spain. In fact, he and his wife, Ruth, hosted three young people in their home, children of Spanish suppliers. His door, and his heart, was always open to friends and strangers alike.

In 2012, the King of Spain awarded Don His Majesty’s Official Cross of the Order of Civil Merit for his contribution to promoting cross-cultural understanding. He called it one of the most meaningful recognitions of his life.

Today La Tienda is led by Don’s sons, Tim and Jonathan, with support from their brother Chris, their mother Ruth and their wonderful wives. Our hope is to carry on Don’s warm and loving spirit in our own lives, and through our work at La Tienda. We will continue his legacy of sharing his deep love of the Spanish people and their culture with our staff, customers and suppliers.

“I am grateful that my family and I are able to work with these good people, to honor their artisan traditions through La Tienda, and to spread the word far and wide about the beauty of Spain and her culture. ¡Que viva la familia Española!"  -Founder Don Harris, 1936-2024

Learn more about Don's love of Spain in his own words in this essay from 2021: Community and Connection in Spain.