The people who knew Jim Harrelson best knew the “Do Good” on his bottles was more than just a slogan. It was his life’s mission.
The Do Good Distillery founder passed away Sunday after suffering a heart attack. He was 38.
Before launching his craft distillery in 2013, the Modesto native spent 14 years in the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy and detective. His family said the company’s name comes from the Benjamin Franklin attributed quote “Do well by doing good.” His wife, fellow Modesto native Liz Harrelson, said people have been reaching out to her from across the country since he went into full cardiac arrest July 31 to express what he meant to them.
“(Another distiller) told me, ‘Originally when I heard the name Do Good Distillery I thought it sounded absurd and then I met Jim and I thought, you know what, that makes sense,’ ” she said.
Before he got into distilling, Harrelson was an avid home brewer of beer. His love of craft whiskey came from his brother-in law, former Oakdale police officer Paul Katuszonek, who was killed in an off-duty automobile accident in 2012. A large photo of Katuszonek still hangs in the distillery’s tasting room.
From law enforcement to whiskey
About four years ago Harrelson made the leap from law enforcement to distilling. While some questioned the career change, Liz Harrelson said her husband never set a goal he didn’t accomplish. While at Davis High School he was a standout baseball pitcher and went on to play for Modesto Junior College and then in the minor leagues. Then he decided to go into the sheriff’s department and became a member of its bomb squad and a training officer. He was also an avid runner, completing half marathons.
Harrelson was serving as president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild and last year helped to successfully lobby to change the law and allow small-batch distillers to sell their products on their properties. In a few short years Do Good has become one of the fastest-growing micro-distilleries in the state, if not the country, said longtime area brewer Bill Coffey.
The distillery produces 10 different spirits, including several varieties of whiskey as well as rum and gin. Do Good can be found locally in Save Mart and O’Brien’s Market stores, as well as other retail locations across the state, Wyoming and even Germany. The family-run business includes his wife and several relatives including his sister-in-law, brother-in-law and aunt.
“He was a pioneer. I think there is going to be a generation, honestly, of brewers and distillers that came from Jim,” said Coffey, who started working as Do Good’s distiller about a year ago. “I get emails every day now from people that he affected. I think that’s his legacy, he is going to be that guy who helped 500 distilleries get going.”
He really did ‘Do Good’
Harrelson’s generosity of time and spirit was well-known. He often let other breweries and distilleries use his barrels and helped them set up their operations. When they met some nine years ago, Liz Harrelson said, their first Thanksgiving together was spent eating a quiet dinner at home and then taking food to people in the parks he knew from his patrols in the city’s airport neighborhood.
“Early when we were dating I said, ‘how can you do all this police work?’ and he said, ‘I don’t kid myself that I can change the world,’ ” she said. “But I never believed him; he did go out there to change the world and help people.”
His co-workers in the sheriff’s department said he was the kind of person who drew others to him, and put people at ease.
“As a deputy, he is someone you always wanted there with you. He was one of those people that once you saw him show up on any kind of an incident, no matter how extreme, you always felt better that he was there,” said longtime friend and sheriff’s deputy Dave Thompson.
After leaving the sheriff’s department Harrelson also became known for his large and full beard, which he joked that he wanted to be so big “it looks like it needs a flea collar,” Liz Harrelson said. That was part of his humorous side, which included the title on his business cards which read “Master-in-Chief of All Things Whiskey” instead of “CEO.”
Company will continue
The family plans to continue the distillery and business in his memory. The company currently has about 14 full- and part-time employees.
“We want to honor Jim and his legacy as well. I couldn’t think of anything he would want less than to have the company not continue,” said sister-in-law Shannon Smith, who is a partner in Do Good.
Harrelson is survived by his wife, Liz; three daughters, Mary, 12, Brooke, 7, and Katy 3; as well as his mother and stepfather, Debra and James Jorge of Sonora; father, Butch Harrelson of Modesto, and siblings Misti Harrelson, Adam Jorge and Luna Jorge, who all live in California.
A public memorial service is being planned, but a date has not been finalized. The family has not set up a GoFundMe page and ask instead that all donations be made to Community Hospice in his name.
In his final act of doing good, the family has donated his organs.
“Seven or eight families will be getting wonderful phone calls,” Liz Harrelson said. “My hope is his legacy would just be small acts of kindness. If you are able to help somebody then you absolutely should. You would never hear Jim say, ‘Oh they’ll figure it out for themselves or that’s not my job.’ I would hope that Jim’s legacy would be one of action and compassion.”