W.Va. industrialist Buck Harless dies at 94
HUNTINGTON — A businessman, philanthropist and driving force for many educational and community-based programs in rural West Virginia has died.
James “Buck” Harless was surrounded by his wife, Hallie, and members of his family when he died Wednesday at his home in Gilbert, W.Va., after a brief illness. He was 94 years old.
The breadth of Harless’ impact was evidenced Thursday afternoon as politicians, educators and community leaders from throughout West Virginia shared their sentiments about Harless, who was born in Taplin, W.Va., in Logan County on Oct. 14, 1919, to Bessie Brown Harless and her husband, Pearly J. Soon.
Bessie died from pneumonia soon after his birth, and he was raised by his mother’s sister, Rosa and her husband, George Erastis “Ras” Ellis, of Gilbert, in Mingo County.
Harless’ Mingo County roots were a driving force behind his philanthropic efforts, which at Marshall University included the establishment of the Buck Harless Student-Athlete Program in 1981 and the June Harless Center for Rural Educational Research and Development in 2000, said Stan Maynard, director of the center for rural education and also was the first director of the student-athlete program.
“I believe he understood that the economic gap that we see in West Virginia could best be narrowed by education,” Maynard said. “Buck Harless was a ‘bridge builder.’ He built bridges for individuals, so they could journey from where they are to where they could be. The bridge he chose to build was a bridge of education, compassion and belief in the spirit of our West Virginia heritage.”
Harless’ most recent contribution to Marshall included support for an indoor athletic facility on campus, which will feature an academic center that will be called the Buck Harless Student-Athlete Academic Center, Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said Thursday.
“There are a lot of sad faces around here,” Hamrick said. “He had a vision. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people, and he sure made a difference in a lot of lives. He was a very, very special person — as good as they came.”
The Harless name also is recognizable to the thousands of Marshall students who take their meals from the 19,000-square-foot Harless Dining Hall, which opened in January 2004.
Harless was past chairman of the Marshall University Board of Advisors and a former member of the Marshall University Foundation Board.
The Harless Auditorium at the Marshall University Medical Center is named after Buck’s son, Larry Joe Harless, who died in 1995.
Harless also received an honorary doctorate from Marshall, was named to the Marshall University Business Hall of Fame, and received the John Marshall Medal of Civic Responsibility.
Harless also was one of the first contributors to the Society of Yeager Scholars at the university.
Marshall President Stephen Kopp described Harless as “the rarest of the exceptional human beings who have graced our world,” who “understood the virtue of hard work and lived it every day.”
“Buck was revered by the Marshall University community, and we thank him for all he has done for the people of West Virginia and Marshall University,” Kopp said. “The greatest honor he could have bestowed on us was the ‘Harless’ name. It is a proud and lasting legacy that affirms the profound influence that he had on this university, our people and our beloved state.”
Harless graduated from the Gilbert public school system in 1937, but he was unable to afford a college education during the Great Depression.
He eloped with his high school sweetheart, June Montgomery, in 1939, and Marshall’s center for rural education is named for her. She died in April 1999 at the age of 78.
The Harlesses had two children, Larry Joe and Judy.
After Larry Joe’s death, Buck and June contributed the construction cost of the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Gilbert, which, among many services, houses a swimming pool, movie theater, a regional learning center and electronic branch of Marshall’s Drinko Library. The center was dedicated in 1999, after June’s death.
Harless also contributed support to the consolidation of high schools in Mingo County to form Mingo Central High School, which is home to the James “Buck” Harless Stadium.
Harless was remembered for more than just his financial contributions in Mingo County, said Robert Bobbera, assistant superintendent of Mingo County Schools.
“It’s hard to put into words the type of contributions he’s made,” Bobbera said. “ Funds are nice, but this is beyond that. He grew up in the area. He knew what it was like to live in rural southern West Virginia and the struggles that students and individuals in area can face. He inspired students. He served as a role model to students.”
Harless started his career as a miner at Red Jacket Coal Co. after graduating from high school. He gave up mining to become part-owner and manager of Gilbert Lumber Company. He later grew the company into the multi-million-dollar International Industries that includes holdings in mining, timber and manufacturing in multiple countries.
Harless also was a prominent supporter of West Virginia University, where he served on the Board of Governors, the University System of West Virginia Board of Trustees and WVU Board of Advisors, and as a trustee of the WVU Alumni Association’s Loyalty Permanent Endowment Fund.
Harless was inducted into the West Virginia Coal Hall of Fame in 1998 and the West Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 2001.
Harless, who served as mayor of Gilbert for two terms in the 1960s, didn’t shy away from the state’s political arena.
He served as one of West Virginia’s five electors in the Electoral College in 2000. The Wall Street Journal credited Harless’ efforts in former President George W. Bush’s victory in the state while serving as the state finance chairman for Bush’s West Virginia Leadership Campaign. In 2004, Harless said he raised more than $200,000 for Bush’s re-election.
In 1999, before now-Sen. Joe Manchin announced his successful bid for Secretary of State, Harless said to The Herald-Dispatch that, “I told him he wasn’t going to win” the governor’s office if he had chosen to run for governor that year. Harless later supported Manchin during his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2004.
Manchin extended his condolences to Harless’ family Thursday.
“Buck Harless was a dear friend not only to me, but to all of West Virginia,” Manchin 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. Buck was, and will continue to be an inspiration to me and so many others in this state, and he will be deeply missed.”
A public viewing will take place from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 4, at the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Gilbert. The funeral service will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 5, at the Gilbert Presbyterian Church. There will be a celebration of Buck Harless’ life at 2 p.m. Sunday at the community center. Evans Funeral Home in Chapmanville is in charge of arrangements.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the Larry Joe Harless Community Center, 202 Larry Joe Harless Drive, Gilbert, WV 25621.
The Herald-Dispatch welcomes your comments on this article, but please be civil. Avoid profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, accusations of criminal activity, name-calling or insults to the other posters. Herald-dispatch.com does not control or monitor comments as they are posted, but if you find a comment offensive or uncivil, hover your mouse over the comment and click the X that appears in the upper right of the comment. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal Facebook page, uncheck the box below the comment.