Friend of coal, James H. “Buck” Harless
By Lucinda Bradford
James Howard “Buck” Harless, 94, of Gilbert, W. Va., passed away peacefully Wednesday night, January 1, 2014, surrounded by his wife Hallie and family.
He was born October 14, 1919, at Taplin, W. Va., to Bessie Brown Harless and her husband Pearly J. Soon after his birth, his mother died of pneumonia, and he was taken in and raised by his mother’s sister, Rosa, and her husband, George Erastis “Ras” Ellis of Gilbert.
When he was young, he was given the nickname “Buster” and townspeople referred to him as Buster Ellis. It was later that he came to be known as Buck Harless. Throughout his life, he cherished the love and support he received from Ras and Rosa Ellis, whom he considered his mom.
He attended Gilbert public schools and graduated high school in 1937. During that time, his first real job was working for George Crago who operated a garage and wrecker service in Gilbert. He learned from George Crago a business philosophy of trust, honor and commitment to excellence through hard work and dedication to customer satisfaction.
A child of the Great Depression, he yearned to attend college but was unable to fulfill that dream for lack of money.
On February 25, 1939, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, June Montgomery, the beginning of a marriage that spanned 60 years and produced two children, Larry Joe and Judy. June Harless died in April of 1999. In the early years of their marriage, he worked at Red Jacket Coal Corporation, first as a laborer and later in its engineering department.
In 1947, he was offered an opportunity to own a one-third interest in a small sawmill that was doomed to failure without proper management and operation. Naively, he dedicated himself to the task, bought out his partners in short order, and made a success of the operation. This was the beginning of what was to become International Industries, Inc., a collection of diverse companies with a worldwide imprint.
On January 23, 1955, a day begun with his feeling utterly alone and lost, ended in tranquility and a sense of redemption when he opened his heart to the Lord at the Gilbert Presbyterian Church. No other event had such a profound, lasting impact on his life.
In 1966, Georgia Pacific Corporation purchased his lumber operations making him a multimillionaire at age 47. Rather than retire, he acted on the suggestion of his son Larry, who worked with is father, to operate sawmills in South America. Against substantial odds, they succeeded where multinational companies failed.
In the 1970s, along with friends—among them Fred Shewey and Frank Allara—he entered the coal business in southern West Virginia. The timing was fortuitous because the price of coal soared to record highs, ensuring business success and adding greatly to his personal wealth. He also added multi state manufacturing and real estate businesses to his enterprise family.
Even though he oversaw wide-ranging business interests, he served his church, community and state with dedication and commitment. He served on numerous boards and civic organizations. He supported West Virginia University and Marshall University in substantial ways. He provided many with the opportunity to attend college. While his philanthropic activities are well noted, the breadth and depth is known to but a few because he did not seek favor through his actions, but rather he tried to make a difference and use his wealth to serve the greater good.
Former President George W. Bush credited Buck Harless with his election to the nation’s highest office, because Buck cast the 270th electoral vote providing the margin of victory in the Electoral College.
Over the years, Buck Harless amassed a legion of friends, all of whom he held dearly in his heart. He considered friendship the most valuable thing that a person could have, and he felt more blessed with friends than with monetary wealth.
Preceding him in death were his first wife, June; son, Larry, infant granddaughter, Shera Elizabeth; brother, Fred, and sister, Mae Morris; half brothers, Milton, Frank, Pearly J. “Bud”, Jr., and Marshall Ray; half sisters, Marie Mace, Lucille Fortner and Betty Jo Collins; stepdaughter, Racina Chapman; and best friend, Fred Shewey.
Survivors include his wife, Hallie, of Gilbert; daughter, Judith Ann Burgess, of Murfreesboro, Tenn.; half brothers, Jimmy, and Earl; stepsons, Ryan and Brett Mollette; four grandchildren: James Harless, II and wife, Sjon, of Flamingo Beach , Costa Rica and Mobile, AL.; Maurice Kirk “M.K.” Harless and wife, Paula, of Mobile, AL; Beverly Burgess of Shelbyville, Tenn.; and Stephanie Burgess Palmer and husband, Robert “Robby” of Mobile, AL; great-grandchildren: James Howard “Trip”, III; Hope; Chelsea; Kitty; Chase; and Hannah.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the Larry Joe Harless Community Center, 202 Larry Joe Harless Drive, Gilbert, WV 25621.
A public viewing will take place Saturday, January 4, 2014 from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the Larry Joe Harless Community Center at Gilbert.
The funeral service will be at the Gilbert Presbyterian Church at 1 p.m. on Sunday, January 5, 2014. There will be a celebration of Buck Harless’ life at the Larry Joe Harless Community Center beginning at 2 p.m.
Evans Funeral Home in Chapmanville is in charge of arrangements.
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