Longtime coal, timber operator Harless dies
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The thing to know about James H. "Buck" Harless is that he never left, Gary White said.
Harless, a longtime coal operator and timber company owner, died Wednesday night at age 94.
Born Oct. 14, 1919, in Taplin, Logan County, Harless grew up in Gilbert, Mingo County, where an aunt raised him after his mother died. He stayed there throughout his long life, said White, Harless' longtime right-hand man and president of his company.
"He obviously could have abandoned West Virginia and lived and conducted his business from anywhere. He chose to remain in his home county. That was to the benefit of Gilbert and the state of West Virginia. He was extremely loyal to the state and its people."
During his career, Harless made millions of dollars in donations to universities and other schools and organizations -- including Marshall University, West Virginia University and what was then Concord College -- that supported academic and athletic programs.
He also funded a community center in Gilbert, named after his late son, Larry Joe Harless. The center offers residents a swimming pool, movie theater, gym facilities, community health center, meeting rooms and in-house café and catering service.
"At least as much was done that no one ever knew about, that never became public," White said. "Buck had a very strong philosophy about giving. If you were blessed with sufficient means to share with others, he felt you had an obligation to do that."
After graduating from Gilbert High School, Harless worked as a miner at Red Jacket Coal Co., beginning in 1942, when he was 21. He had already married June Montgomery, his high-school girlfriend. They had two children.
Harless later got a job in Red Jacket Coal's engineering department. In 1947, he became part owner and manager of a sawmill company in Gilbert. Within a few years, Harless bought out the other owners and Gilbert Lumber Co. was operating sawmills in several locations.
His company owned long-term timber leases on land owned by U.S. Steel, and Harless traded his company, and the leases, to Georgia-Pacific Corp. for a large block of company stock in 1966.
Because the non-competition terms of the sale barred him from timbering in Appalachia for a decade, Harless got back into the coal business, this time as an owner, according to the biography "Buck: A Life Sketch of James H. Harless," written by Ruel Foster and Robert Conner and published in 1992 by the West Virginia University Press. (Harless also published an autobiography, "A Most Fortunate Life," in 2012.)
Harless then developed new lumbering operations in Ecuador, Guatemala and Brazil, bought two ships and built a lumber importing dock in Mobile, Ala. He became the largest importer of mahogany in the United States.
International Industries became his main company. It had three divisions: International Resources, to produce coal; Gilco Lumber, to produce and distributed lumber; and Benson International, to manufacture truck bodies and trailers.
In 2007, Harless sold International Resources to International Resource Partners (IRP), owned by New York-based Lightfoot Capital Partners. Harless retained a 25 percent share in the new company.
In March 2011, Lightfoot Capital sold IRP to the James River Coal Co., based in Richmond, Va., for $475 million.
"Buck Harless is one of those people we all hope to emulate through our lives somehow. There are very few people I have seen that kept their faith and are committed to it, humbly and with a lot of graciousness and generosity," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "He did not want attention brought to what he did as a leader in the coal and timber industries or in the education community. Only he knew how many people he helped got through college."
In the early 1980s, Harless agreed to partly fund an auditorium at Gilbert High School. County residents had approved a levy to pay for the addition, but school officials changed their plans after the levy had passed, and Gilbert-area parents pulled their children out of schools. Harless' donation -- $300,000, about half of the auditorium's cost -- defused the situation.
Around that time, Harless was named chairman of WVU's advisory committee on the state Board of Regents, which used to oversee state colleges. In 1982, he was named board chairman of the WVU Foundation, the school's fundraising arm, where he supported then-WVU President E. Gordon Gee in a power struggle with the foundation's director.
He was named the Sunday Gazette-Mail's West Virginian of the Year in 1983.
But in 1989, Harless resigned from the board that oversaw state universities, as well as a state economic development group, to protest what he believed was then-Gov. Gaston Caperton's failure to take stronger action against wildcat strikes in the coalfields.
Harless -- who consistently opposed efforts by the United Mine Workers union to organize coal mining operations -- said union pickets had thrown rocks and stormed guard shacks at Hampden Coal Co., the non-union operation he owned in Mingo County. The union launched wildcat strikes to support coal miners striking against Pittston Coal, strikes that spread to mines in 10 states.
In 2000, Harless backed George W. Bush's Republican presidential campaign, helping him win West Virginia's five electoral votes in that close election.
In his analysis of the 2000 election, Wall Street Journal reporter Tom Hamburger wrote that a "coal-fired crusade helped bring Bush a crucial victory."
Hamburger wrote, "At 81 years old, Mr. Harless is the last of West Virginia's homegrown coal barons. Long a local kingmaker, he hadn't ventured into national politics much.
"But in April 1999, he crossed the narrow wooden bridge from his island home on the Guyandotte River to his helicopter pad, took a chopper to his private jet at the Charleston airport and flew to Austin, Texas, to meet then-Gov. Bush."
Campaigning done by Harless throughout the state's Southern coalfields, Hamburger wrote, helped Bush win West Virginia's critical five electoral votes, even though Democrat Al Gore won the state's three largest coal-producing counties.
In 2004, Harless served as finance chairman for Bush's re-election campaign in West Virginia. Bush appointed Harless to the U.S. Air Force Academy's Board of Visitors.
Harless was a member of the Massey Energy's board of directors between 2001 and 2005, where he served as chairman of the Public and Environmental Policy Committee.
State politicians and other leaders have praised Harless since his death.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "In his long life, Buck Harless made many fortunes, but the one he prized the most was the fortune of friends he amassed throughout the years. He was as loyal a friend as they come to the families of Gilbert, Mingo County and West Virginia."
"Buck's concern for his fellow West Virginians was evident in efforts, whether through providing health-care resources for thousands, recreational programs for members of the community or the thousands of jobs he created as a businessman, made immeasurable contributions to communities in our state," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D.W.Va., said, "I will always remember and admire Buck's passion to make West Virginia a better place to work and to live, and his contributions to our state, particularly to our coal industry, state education programs and Boy Scouts of America, will never be forgotten."
West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said Harless "was a true pioneer, leader, gentleman, statesman, philanthropist and a very committed West Virginian."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said, "West Virginia has lost a leader in our state's business community. Buck was committed to the people of our great state and the community he was proud to call home. He will long be remembered. Joanne and I extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Hallie, his extended family and friends."
White said that, through all of the years of donating millions of dollars, Harless' focus on helping children get an education was still rooted in his poor Mingo County roots.
"Buck's primary focus was always children and education. He had a passion for underprivileged children. He was an orphan himself after his mother died of pneumonia when he was quite small," White said.
"He was going to the Children's Home Society in Charleston, when his aunt found out and brought him to Gilbert. He was always very sympathetic to needy people, especially needy children. He was a unique guy."
A public viewing is planned at the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Gilbert between 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday. The funeral will be at Gilbert Presbyterian Church, where Harless was a longtime member, at 1 p.m. Sunday, followed by a celebration of his life at the community center at 2 p.m.
Donations in his memory may be made to the Larry Joe Harless Community Center Foundation at 202 Larry Joe Harless Drive, Gilbert, WV 25621.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.