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.