Nice Guys Can Be First

Nice Guys Can Be First

Potomac’s Harry Semmes

Potomac wouldn’t sound the same if not for Harry Semmes. It was he who led the fundraising efforts to purchase the bells at Saint Francis Church on River Road that ring every fifteen minutes and sound out the hour.

“He talked all the businessmen into contributing,” said Lutie Semmes, his wife, a former owner of The Almanac.

After having lived in Potomac for over 50 years, Harry was made the Grand Marshall at this year’s Potomac Day Parade. “It was an honor,” Harry Semmes said. “I got a big kick out of it.”

“When I think of Potomac, I think of Harry Semmes,” said Elie Pisarra-Cain.

“You don’t find many, if any people critical of Harry,” said Richard Moran, who has known Semmes for more than 50 years.

Moran attributes this to Semmes’ demeanor.

“He’s a very nice man,” Moran said. “He seldom has anything bad to say about anybody.”

Semmes, 84, a modest man who attributes the Grand Marshal honor to having “just been around a long time,” was born in Kensington.

Semmes’ family moved to Chevy Chase. He went on to Dartmouth College where he studied pre-law until the start of World War II. “I enlisted in the service about two weeks after Pearl Harbor,” Semmes said.

Semmes served as an officer in the Pacific theater during the war, while his father fought in Europe. Semmes won the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart during a landing on the island of Sai-Pan, where he continued fighting after he was wounded, said Lutie Semmes.

“He lost his eye in the invasion of Sai-Pan,” Moran said.

Semmes served in an amphibious tank which was among the first to land and establish a beachhead. “He always told me, ‘It sounds more dangerous than it is,’” Lutie Semmes said.

After the war, Semmes returned to finish college. “I met a lovely girl and married her,” Semmes said.

He decided against continuing into law school and instead entered real estate. “He’s been a straightforward and honest man in real estate,’ Moran said. “It’s rare to find a person in real estate whose word is his bond; with Harry it is.”

He and his wife bought a house on Glen Road when Potomac was little more than a crossroads.

Semmes has been present for much of the development of Potomac.

Many residents may not realize that one of the town tallest buildings, on River Road across from Chevy Chase Bank, is properly known as “The Semmes Building.”

“We got an awful lot of flack from the citizens,” Semmes said.

When the building was developed in the early 1980s many wanted it to have only two floors, not three. “We won out,” he said.

He was also co-owner of a parcel of land in what is now the Greenbriar Preserve. As a result of a deal he, and three other landowners made with the county, a tract of ecologically rare soil known as serpentine barrens will be preserved from development.

Semmes is most at home when discussing real estate and development, particularly in the Potomac area.

“I think Potomac is developed very attractively,” Harry Semmes said. “I think the whole thing has been done very well.”

In recent years, he has lent his skills in land dealings to Habitat for Humanity, an organization which helps to build homes for needy people.

“I find land for them to build a home on,” he said. “Habitat is a wonderful cause to work for.”

Now, after being a Potomac fixture for so long, Harry Semmes has moved on to a retirement home near Frederick. “You’ve got to change. You’ve got to move on,” he said.

Semmes still returns to the building which bears his name several days a week to work on some land deals and help the people at Habitat. “I miss the area. Of course I’m here a few days a week. I’ve got no complaints.”