James H. “Buck” Harless, a visionary pioneer of the timber and coal industries in southern West Virginia and one of the state’s best known industrialists/philanthropists, died Wednesday at his home in Gilbert. He was 94.

Harless built his Mingo County-based business into International Industries LLC — a business that made an incredible impact in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. However, his tireless efforts in support of higher education, health care, his church, the Boy Scouts of America, the town of Gilbert and much more all combine to form an enduring legacy for future generations.

“We lost a great one on Wednesday,” Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association said. “I exchanged text messages with Gary (White) and Sharon (Murphy) (Wednesday) evening, but I haven’t had an opportunity to speak with either of them today.” White is president of International Industries, and Murphy is Harless’ administrative assistant.

“If there is anybody who lived his faith, it was Buck,” Raney said. “He was a great, great friend and mentor of mine for 35 years. He had great insight and vision. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was like Buck. Buck was one of a kind and a true pioneer in the coal and timber industries.”

Harless was born in Taplin on Oct. 14, 1919, grew up in Gilbert where he grew up in humble circumstances and started working at an early age. Harless worked hauling timber from the forests to area sawmills, saved his money and eventually got involved in the lumber business himself. He also invested in the coal industry, and that business grew as well.

“I was in his office over in Gilbert one time,” Melvin Grubb, the dean of southern West Virginia coalfield photographers said. “I was going into one of his little punch mines in Gilbert to take some pictures for him. He took me over to the mine. That was at a rough time in the coalfields, but I knew I was safe when I was with Buck.”

Daniel D. “Danny” Smith, former senior vice president of energy and properties for Norfolk Southern Corp., now retired, said that Harless called him four or five years ago to talk about a business proposal.

“I flew up to Charleston to meet with him when we were trying to complete a contract and Buck came to pick me up in his Mercedes-Benz,” Smith said. “He had to have been about 90 at the time. I asked him about it and he told me that he could drive better than he could walk. What a great guy! He was just a pleasure to know.

“We had several partnerships through the years,” Smith said. “No matter what kind of project you were working on with him, if you shook hands with Buck, you knew he was going to do everything he said he would do. He was absolutely one of the most trustworthy people I’ve ever known. There was none finer.”

Charles A. Peters of Bluefield, retired owner of Peters Equipment, did a lot of business with Harless through the years, but he said that he was most proud of all the two of them did for the Boy Scouts of America.

“Buck lived by the Golden Rule and treated everybody the way he would like to be treated,” Peters said. “Buck and I did a lot for the Boy Scouts. We both thought that becoming a scout was the best thing a person could do. Buck was a great guy ... a great humanitarian.”

Harless was generous in his financial support of Marshall and West Virginia and Concord universities as well as other colleges throughout the state. On his 92nd birthday, he was the guest of honor at an open house that followed the opening of a new clinic in Gilbert at the Larry Joe Harless Center in Gilbert — a combination fitness, meeting, office, recreational and health clinic in a center named in memory of Harless’ late son.

“For all of us in the coal business, it’s like seeing another of our coal business pioneers and great entrepreneurs of this industry passing on,” Rick Taylor, president of the Pocahontas Coal Association said. “There are several very good coal men out there now, still working every day, but there’s probably no one out there who can take Buck’s place.”

“Buck was an inspiration to me personally and to all of West Virginia,” State Senator H. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said. I will always remember his contributions to our state and particularly to our Mingo County. His generosity will always be remembered and he was without question a living legend. His life was exceptional in every way and I thank God for James ‘Buck’ Harless.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin noted that Harless was: “committed to the people of our great state and the community he was proud to call home.” U.S. Senator John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., stated in a press release that: “Buck’s impact on West Virginia was significant,” and said that his efforts created “immeasurable contributions to communities in our state.”

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., extended his condolences to his wife, Hallie, and his entire family. “I will always remember Buck’s passion to make West Virginia a better place,” Manchin wrote in a press release. U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., remembered Harless as “a man (of) integrity, intellect, innovation and above all, initiative,” and characterized him as a, “titan of industry (who) proved time and again to be a gentle giant of generosity.”

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey saw Harless as “a living legend who shared his successes with his local community, the state and the region without asking for anything in return,” and the state Republican party stated: “Mr. Harless was a true pioneer, leader, gentleman, statesman, philanthropist and a very committed West Virginian.”

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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