Local coal and timber baron James H. “Buck” Harless dies

Lucinda Bradford

January 3, 2014

GILBERT - Mingo County entrepreneur and philanthropist James H. “Buck” Harless died Wednesday at the age of 94 at his home in Gilbert.

Harless was well known throughout the state for being an exceptionally successful businessman while maintaining a down-to-earth nature.

Harless began life as an orphan after his mother passed away shortly after his birth. He attended and graduated from Gilbert High School. Harless grew up poor but had dreams of wealth.

While still in high school, Harless told his Aunt Rosa that he would be a millionaire by the age 40. By the age of 40, Harless had already been a millionaire for several years.

Harless was raised by a devoted couple who gave him love and a home in a close-knit community.

Harless made millions of dollars and gave back much of what he acquired. In spite of his success, he remained a humble man. He used his resources and influence to make the state, particularly his hometown of Gilbert, a better place to live.

“As a founding member of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, Mr. Harless instilled in this agency the true meaning of service and compassion. He was Mingo County’s pioneer of goodness, and his selflessness was perpetual. May we never forget Buck Harless’ contributions to his beloved Mingo County,” Leasha Johnson, assistant director of the MCRA, said.

“One of my most memorable insights of Mr. Harless came several years ago when I was in the Legislature,” said Steve Kominar, director of the MCRA. “Mr. Harless wanted to speak to me regarding some issues coming up in the Legislature. During my discussions, I of course addressed him as Mr. Harless. After some time, he looked at me and said, ‘Steve, I’m just Buck.’”

“After leaving the office, I said to myself, ‘Here is a self-made man who has traveled the world, dined with presidents, has the financial security to live anywhere in the world, in any lifestyle he may have chosen. His choice was Gilbert for he was just Buck,” Kominar added. “Mr. Harless will forever be an icon; his passion, advice and counsel, generosity, friendship and moral guidance will always be the standard we all should strive for. The lives he has touched we may never know, but because he was just Buck his legacy will live on.”

“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. He was what we need more of in this world, a man of integrity, intellect, innovation and, above all, initiative. Buck could make things happen, and for the better. His entrepreneurism was one of sharp mind rivaled only by a giving heart; this titan of industry proved time and again to be a gentle giant of generosity. My thoughts and prayers are with Hallie, his family and his countless friends,” U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall said in a statement. “I join all West Virginians in mourning the passing of Buck Harless. Despite any philosophical differences, I always considered him a close friend.”

After graduating from high schoo,l Harless worked for several years as a miner at Red Jacket Coal Company. In 1947, he gave up coal mining with only $500 and a small sawmill and beaome part owner and manager at a Gilbert sawmill. He grew the Gilbert Lumber Company into a multimillion-dollar International Industries. The company is involved primarily in developing natural resources such as coal mining and timber, but which also include manufacturing, hotel and real estate industries. International Industries including the subsidiaries International Resources Inc., Gilco Lumber Inc. and Benson International Inc. and had operations in five states serving domestic and international customers.

His many achievements and contributions to his community and state seem countless. He was named Coal Man of the year in 1976 by the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association, in 1983 the Charleston Gazette recognized him as West Virginian of the Year and his contributions to the coal mining industry were acknowledged in 1998 by his induction into the West Virginia Coal Hall of Fame. He was also featured in Forbes magazine for his financial acumen.

He was a frequent donor to many organizations, including both West Virginia and Marshall universities.

In honor of his son, Larry Joe Harless, who died in 1995, he contributed the construction cost of the 55,000-square-foot building which became the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in 1999. The multi-purposed facility has become an integral part of the community. Because of his concern for the community’s access to quality health care, he brought a first-rate primary care and medical specialty clinic to the LJHCC that is staffed and managed by Southern West Virginia Health System and hosts specialists from the West Virginia University schools of Medicine and Osteopathy. Harless also had a vision for the students and football players of Mingo Central Comprehensive High School, making a substantial to the high school for construction of a first-class football field.

Some reactions to Harless’ death:

“Buck’s impact on West Virginia was significant. He worked to make a better life for himself, his family and his community, and his efforts created jobs and opportunities for Southern 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, and making immeasurable contributions to communities in our state. I join with West Virginians everywhere in mourning the loss, and my prayers are with his family during this difficult time.” - U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

“Buck Harless was a dear friend not only to me, but to all of West Virginia. Gayle and I are deeply saddened to learn of his passing, and we extend our condolences to his wife, Hallie, his entire family and to all of those who were touched by his exceptional life. 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. He will never be forgotten. Buck was, and will continue to be, an inspiration to me and so many others in this state, and he will be deeply missed.” - Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“West Virginia has lost a giant. Buck Harless’ generosity and philanthropy always will be remembered throughout West Virginia. My heart goes out today to the family and friends of the man who gave so much of himself to others. Mr. Harless was a living legend who shared his successes with his local community, the state and the region, without asking for anything in return. He was a true West Virginia success story and embodied the strength, determination and love for his neighbors that makes this state great.” – Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia Attorney General

“Mr. Harless’ dedication to our state was unmatched and his impact will continue to be felt for generations to come. Buck Harless was a true self-made American, who used his successes to leave us a legacy of jobs and philanthropy throughout the Mountain State. His generosity and wisdom helped ignite changes to West Virginia and national politics that will benefit this state for decades. We will miss Mr. Harless’ fighting spirit and lift up those closest to him in this difficult time. God bless our friend, Buck Harless, and may he rest in peace.” – Conrad Lucas, West Virginia Republican Party Chairman

“Not only was Buck Harless a pioneer innovator in the coal industry, he truly was a gentleman and a positive role model for all.” - Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.

Sports Editor Kyle Lovern contributed to this article.