CONYERS — Dollar Bill had been his little best friend and constant companion for more years than he can remember. While Walter Harris’ Chihuahua was small in stature, his heart was big and brave. With the house burning down around them, Harris and Dollar Bill scrambled to safety outside in the yard. It was then the little dog turned and ran back into the fiery blaze.
Folks say they believe he rushed back in to save Harris’ grandson, Jefferson Tye, who had already managed to find his own way out of the collapsing house.
The brave little dog would not survive. He died of smoke inhalation and was later found among the ashes of the Conyers home. His dog’s death was but one of the many blows Harris would suffer from that horrific early morning fire on March 22. That was the day the Rockdale County native lost everything he had ever worked for his entire life.
“He lost ev-er-ry-thing,” his niece Renee’ Simpson said. “He lost every possession he ever owned and that he worked for all his life. Everything went up in flames…He had no insurance. He had liability on his vehicles. We’ll have to buy him a truck. No insurance on his house and only liability on his truck and car. No pension, no savings, nothing.”
A man of few words who lived a simple life, Harris never needed much. And what he did have, he shared with others who were lacking.
“He’s always been so quiet,” Simpson said. “He was a workaholic and a fisherman and always there for the family. When the family was in need, he was always there to do whatever he could physically or financially when he was employed and had money.”
Harris did construction work all his life, primarily laying brick and pouring concrete. He also did what he could for his fellow citizens in Conyers. Simpson tells how Harris had four lawnmowers and for years, he would put the equipment on the back of his trailer and go to small churches throughout the community and mow their lawns for free. Now that equipment too is just rubble in the ashes.
It was an old small mill house in the Milstead community, but it was Harris’ home for 51 years. Filled with photos and memorabilia from his 80 years of life, the little house is where he and his late wife lived and where they raised their family. His wife had lived in the house next door before the couple married, so to Harris, this spot, this community is special.
“It is very sad,” Simpson said. “He is grieving daily. When I speak of that grief, just imagine a person who returns to the gravesite of a spouse daily. That was his entire life.”
The elderly widower is temporarily staying with friends nearby, but his niece says he keeps telling her he just wants to go home. Since the day after the fire, Harris goes to the ruins of his home each morning at 8, where he stays until 7 each evening. His niece worries because he often talks with well-wishers who stop by about those terrible moments of March 22, and he cries.
Harris said it was about 4 a.m. when he heard a loud pop. He later told his niece he thought it was a transformer, so he got up and went to the kitchen in the front of the house. He saw smoke coming underneath the door, so he ran back to his bedroom to get dressed and when he returned to the front, the fire was coming underneath the door.
Simpson said the cause of the fire is undetermined. Some have suggested it might have been a gas leak, but his niece said her uncle had not had the gas connected to his house for four years. The only thing for sure is that the house is gone and all that’s left now is a tumble of wood and destroyed belongings.
“He said it hurts him to leave,” Simpson said. “While he’s there, he just burns a piece or two or three and he literally stares at the fire. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life.”
Some have recommended he move into an apartment or subsidized housing, but Harris tells them he will die if he has to do that. His niece says she believes he would grieve himself to death and probably would not live longer than a month.
“He just wants to be right there in that exact spot and doesn’t want to go anywhere else,” she added. Simpson has sent out 213 letters to companies and organizations asking for help with rebuilding her uncle’s home. A few have reached out, but Simpson hopes others will offer to donate materials, money, services or volunteer their time. She said her uncle and family are grateful for everything people have already been doing to help.
“There have been a couple of churches that have come out and left money for food,” she said. “Beasley’s Drug Store has been wonderful. They’ve been bringing food out. We’ve had people in the community to bring him clothing and now he has more than he needs. Toiletries have been overwhelming. He has an abundance. Our main focus right now is the difficult part of getting the house reconstructed. We’re needing building materials, laborers, people who are professionals who can donate their time for flooring, insulation, drywall and other needs.”
A licensed real estate agent for 24 years, Simpson has found a house plan that is as similar as possible to Harris’ former home. It is a small two-bedroom cottage with a family room and a kitchen.
“He’s pleased with that,” she said. “He just wants to be right there in that exact spot…All he talks about is having his house rebuilt. He says, ‘I just want to go home and walk into my house.’”
Simpson said she is planning to go through her own old family photos and is looking forward to the day she can frame a few to hang on the walls of her uncle’s new house.
Every time he sees her, Harris tells his niece how much he appreciates her and says he doesn’t know what he would do without her. Simpson worries about her uncle and wants to do everything she can.
“I can’t explain it,” she said. “He’s in his own world. I’ve never seen him like this in my whole life.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up and donations can be made by going to
“That’s my favorite uncle — always,” Simpson said, adding that she is the daughter of Harris’ late brother, James, who passed away in 1997. “He’s a fisherman and I love fish. I could eat it seven days a week. He’d always go fishing and he’d call me up and say he’s got fish for me. I’d pop in on him and make sure he’s OK… We’ve always been very close.”
It was Harris’ neighbor, who is also a close family friend, who called Simpson the morning of the fire. She first asked the friend if her uncle and cousin were safe and the friend said yes, but added that no one could find little Dollar Bill.
Simpson arrived at daybreak to see her uncle standing there with tears rolling down his face.
“I felt a sense of tremendous void,” Simpson said. “I was hurting as though I’d just lost my dad all over again. The tears from him were not just for a loss, but a death. It touched me to the core, and I could not fathom what he was feeling at that time. Every emotion he was feeling, it drifted over to me. I could feel it…The takeaway is he survived and my cousin survived. So after gathering myself, I was able to give a sigh of relief.
“All of this other stuff can be replaced, but when you think about it, I know this is what he’s thinking, it cannot be replaced. Fifty-one years. It cannot.”