ON Wednesday, Southern West Virginia lost a great friend, advocate and benefactor as James H. "Buck" Harless died in his home in Gilbert at 94.
At 15, he told friends he would be a millionaire by the time he was 40. Upon graduation from Gilbert High School, he entered the mines. At 28, Harless became a manager and part-owner of a sawmill. He was a natural businessman and he grew the Gilbert Lumber Co. into a multi-million dollar conglomerate and by 40, he indeed was a millionaire.
But he and his wife chose to stay in Gilbert, living in a modest house. Harless gave back to the community and the state. He gave millions of dollars to Marshall and West Virginia universities as well as other colleges. He built a $9.5 million community center in Gilbert in 1995 in the memory of his son, Larry Joe Harless, who used to complain that there was nothing to do in Gilbert, population 450.
Marshall is home to the Buck Harless Student Athlete Program and the June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development. He once was chairman of Marshall's Board of Advisors. He also was once chairman of the West Virginia University Foundation Board. He helped churches as well.
Some say Harless was a kingmaker. His allies included Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Gov. Cecil Underwood. Harless may have elected George W. Bush president as he was instrumental in flipping the state Republicans in the 2000 presidential election. Without West Virginia's five Electoral College votes, Florida would not have mattered.
Above all, he was a West Virginian who never forgot his roots because he never left them. Speedy Bevin, general manager of WVOW Radio in Logan, told MetroNews just what kind of a man Harless was.
"He lived in Gilbert in a very simple house across the Guyandotte," Bevin said. "There used to be a restaurant in Gilbert called Billy Ann's and he went there for lunch every day. He was so approachable. If you met him and didn't know who he was and struck up a conversation and then later learned that guy is a billionaire, you'd be dumbstruck."
Buck Harless was an inspiration, because he was a hard-working man who refused to let success go to his head — and he gave back to his community and his state. West Virginia could use more hard-working, community-minded, business-focused individuals like Buck Harless.