Student memorialized six months after death


Photo Contributed by Georgianne Harms

Derek Harms was a student at Winona State from 2015 until his death on April 9, 2018 from a snowboarding accident. His friends and family remember him as a kind, friendly person who always wore a smile.

Kellen Brandt, Features Reporter

Winona State University continues to grieve the loss of former student Derek Harms.

Harms attended Winona State from fall 2015 to spring 2018. The Harms family is choosing to celebrate his life through memorials given to Winona State to cherish the memories he left here.

The dedication of three yellow birch trees and a sign that says ‘Derek Harms’ with QR capability that connects to other facts and information about trees and nature have been placed outside of Memorial Hall. The memorial serves as a place where memories of Derek Harms can be shared and remembered, as well as an educational piece for Winona State.

Harms’ mother, Georgianne Harms, shared why the Harms family chose trees for Derek Harms’ memorial here at Winona State.

“Besides their beauty, grace and environmental importance, they represent Harms family traditions. Derek’s father, uncle and grandfather ran a wholesale tree nursery—Derek was proud of that,” Georgianne Harms said. “In their honor, Derek even took horticulture classes in high school. We wanted his friends in Winona to have a place they could gather and share their memories of Derek together.”

Many faculty and staff members at Winona State have reached out to the Harms family to show how much they appreciated Derek during his college experience.

Roger Riley, professor and department chair for the Recreation, Tourism, and Therapeutic Recreation department, had Derek Harms in an RTTR class of his and was one of many faculty members who enjoyed having Derek Harms in their classes.

“I can tell you that he always had a smile,” Riley said.

Riley shared that Derek Harms was a traveler on the Pacific Challenge studying abroad in New Zealand and Australia. This study abroad program works closely with the  program allowing RTTR majors to see the world while also studying and learning, all things Derek Harms loved.

Derek Harms was an RTTR major and a lover of the outdoors. He was employed at the Outdoor Education and Recreation Center (OERC) working at the climbing wall and working with the canoes and kayaks instructing canoe trips down the Mississippi River.

Derek Harms went on many trips with the OERC program and enjoyed the beauty of Winona as much as he could. The OERC is also starting an excursion scholarship in Derek Harms’ honor.

“We felt so happy that Derek made himself a home away from home in Winona. He loved the bluffs and was also drawn to Winona for its size and Winona State’s strong academic reputation. He thought it was a good place for balance, where students could work hard and study but also be outside and be a part of nature,” Georgianne Harms said.   

Another memorial in honor of Derek Harms is the Derek Harms Leadership Award. The Harms family partnered with Winona State’s RTTR department and the development staff to create this 3-year matching academic fund.

“The scholarship was simply intended to keep Derek’s memory and name alive in a giving light, he was so giving that anything created in memorial for him had to have movement in it. We want this memorial to help students move forward towards graduation or towards any other goal they have,” Georgianne Harms said.

The Harms family stays connected with many of Derek Harms’ friends and hopes that the recipient of the Derek Harms Leadership Award will also keep in touch with the Harms family.

“It would be very meaningful for us to hear from the recipients of Derek’s scholarship. We love to hear from young people who are having great experiences and are always cheering them all on. We had the great fortune to meet a lot of the wonderful friends Derek was associated with and they still stay in touch, they tell us about trips they have been on and they tell us about how they are doing academically,” Georgianne Harms said.

The Derek Harms Leadership Award will be available for application in spring 2019 and more information regarding the award will be released later in the academic year.

“The scholarship encourages participants to reach academic success and also to be involved in collegiate and community activities. We always think of Derek as being a well-rounded person, pursuing many activities and endeavors. For example, Derek DJ’d for the campus radio station, KQAL, and also played on the Ultimate Frisbee team,” Georgianne Harms said.

Cameron Lornston, senior history education major at Winona State, was not only a friend of Derek Harms, but also hosted a show on KQAL with him.

“In [the time working together] he showed me so much that I still listen to and cherish today. I would consider Derek a large reason my love of music is what it is today,” Lornston said.

Lornston had nothing but good things to say about Derek Harms and the time they spent together at Winona State.

“Derek was a kind soul, his love for the slightly odd was something that really made me come out of my shell at college. He had a sense of humor and a personality that couldn’t be replicated by anyone. I am forever thankful our paths crossed.” Lornston said.

The Winona State Men’s Ultimate Frisbee team was another large part of Derek Harms’ time at Winona State. The team has placed Derek Harms’ jersey and Frisbee on display in the trophy case at Memorial Hall.

“The Ultimate Frisbee team was a great organization for Derek. Their community was really strong and I know they miss him dearly. He met many people and made lasting friendships being involved in sports and activities,” Georgianne Harms said.

Mr. and Mrs. Harms encourage students at Winona State to pursue opportunities to appreciate all that Winona has to offer.

“Experience all that is there to experience. You have friends, peers, mentors, learning, fun memories, sports and nature– all in one setting and it is all there to participate in,” Georgianne Harms said.

Derek Harms’ father, Dennis Harms, spoke highly of his son as well.

“Derek was the kind of person who could brighten any room with his smile. He was always doing things for other people. He could always see the best in everyone and in every situation,” Dennis Harms said.

Winona State will remember Derek Harms and his achievements here through his birch tree memorial, generous scholarship in the RTTR program, the excursion scholarship through the OERC and his lasting memories held by students and faculty here at Winona State.

“He was as smart as he was funny and as kind as he was energetic. His energy went into his kindness,”  Georgianne Harms said. “We miss him immeasurably, but the positive feelings we all shared about Winona remain with us.”

Photo Contributed by Georgianne Harms
Derek Harms pictured with his parents, Georgianne and Dennis, during a trip to Yosemite National Park.
“Derek was the kind of person who could brighten any room with his smile. He was always doing things for other people. He could always see the best in everyone and in every situation,” Dennis said.
Natalie Tyler
Three Yellow Birch trees were planted in dedication to Derek outside Memorial Hall, these trees hold a special significance to the Harms family as Derek’s father, uncle and grandfather ran a wholesale tree nursery. Partnering with the RTTR department, the Harms set up a scholarship in Derek’s name.