By Jim Ross
When you ask Gary White why he still lives in Logan, he recalls what the late Buck Harless said about living in Gilbert.
White explains how people often asked Harless why he stayed in his small home town in Mingo County instead of in a larger, more affluent place. Harless replied that he could get anywhere in the world he needed to be from Gilbert, so he chose to live in his hometown. White says he feels the same way.
White, the chief operating officer of International Resources LLC, counts Harless as one of many people who gave him advice that led him up the career ladder in the coal industry. But it all started with his roots in Logan County.
White graduated from Logan High School in 1968. Then he attended Marshall University, where he studied speech and safety education. But he already had a busy academic and work life by then.
In junior high, White was tested for and accepted into an intense program that taught students electronic technology. In eighth grade, he had to pass a placement test, and when he did that, he was put into a class that taught higher math. In high school, he attended classes in summer and spent most of his study hall time in the electronics program.
“It could be said that gave me a discipline for managing several things at one time,” White said. “At the same time, I worked 32 to 40 hours a week at Kroger. My only extracurricular activity at high school was I did participate in choral studies and was a member of the all-state chorus for three years.”
White continued his music avocation at Marshall, where he was the only non-music major in the 50-member symphonic choir, the choral group performing at the school’s highest level. And he worked at the Kroger store in Ashland, Ky., as well as part time at Sears.
“I don’t think I’d be described as a workaholic, but I like to have my time occupied and have it productive,” he said.
In 1970, he married Jo Ann Evans, also a Marshall student from Logan. Two years later, she gave birth to their only child, Jennifer.
“We recognized early on that her development was slow,” White said. “We took her to Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati. They did an evaluation and told us that while it wasn’t a classic case of cerebral palsy, that we should call it that so people would know what our challenges were.”
The Whites were told to only expect a couple of years with Jennifer, but they had her for 39. She passed away in December 2011.
“She was very much a part of everything we did,” White said. “All of our plans were surrounded by her needs. We chose to not let her limitation be any more than it had to be.
“We had a great life, and she had a great life. When her death came, it was her time, and we accepted that.”
In Jennifer’s early years, the White family’s insurance did not pay for her therapy, braces or wheelchairs. White bought several wrecked or damaged vehicles, repaired them and used the profits to provide for Jennifer’s needs.
Once out of Marshall, White started his career in the coal industry teaching electrical equipment maintenance theory and practice to men who wanted their electrician’s licenses. Later he went to work for Island Creek Coal Co., where he worked for four years. Then it was on to Amherst Coal Co., where he was training director, then human resources manager and later manager of underground mining.
At the time, White’s father worked for a mining supply firm and White’s father-in-law worked for Island Creek.
“It’s been an industry that’s been very good for us and one that we’ve been very grateful to still be a part of,” he said.
White stayed at Amherst Coal about 12 years. He left there in 1984 to become president of the West Virginia Coal Association, where he stayed for 7 1/2 years.
White said he was talked into taking the Coal Association job by board chairman Herb Jones. Jones told him the job was not an end in itself. Through the contacts he would make there, he could move up in the industry eventually, he was told.
And that was how he came to work for Harless, the self-made billionaire from Gilbert. Harless was disappointed to learn his son, Larry, was retiring from the family business and would not succeed his father in heading the companies, White said.
After a Coal Association meeting at Amherst, White offered his sympathy to Harless and offered whatever help he had to give. That was in October. In January, Harless asked White to visit his office in Gilbert, and White went. While they were talking, Harless described a problem at one of his companies and bridged his conversation with the phrase, “When you come to work for me …”
After the meeting, White headed back to Charleston. There was no cell phone service available in that part of Mingo County, so he stopped at the first pay phone he could find — along U.S. 52 on Horsepen Mountain — to let Jones know that the opportunity he had predicted had just happened.
White said Harless told him that offer of help had stayed with him and prompted Harless to bring White into his companies.
About five years ago, Harless decided to dismantle his holdings, partly as part of his estate planning, White said. He sold off his assets, including a coal operation known as International Resources. Harless sold International Resources to Lightfoot Capital Partners, which formed International Resource Partners LLC, headquartered in South Charleston. White stayed on as head of IRP. Lightfoot Capital was planning an IPO of IRP until James River Coal Co. offered to buy it outright, which it did in April 2011. White stayed on as IRP’s chief operating officer. Today his main responsibilities are negotiating leases, negotiating purchase and sale of properties as well as handling government affairs.
IRP was James River’s entry in West Virginia, and the company needed someone who knew the state and its political landscape. Thus, White stayed with the company.
“I’m as active as I need to be to do what they need me to do,” he said.
As of Feb. 1, he was put on a 75 percent work schedule. In theory, that is.
“Given my propensity, I do what needs to be done,” he said.
In his professional life, White has been a supporter of vocational and higher education. He served three terms on the Marshall University Board of Governors, he is a current member of the Higher Education Policy Commission and a member of the Marshall Foundation board.
He also is a director of United Bankshares and a member of the board of advisers of West Virginia Media Holdings, the parent company of The State Journal.
In his personal life, he enjoys fishing and water-related activities. He and Jo Ann have a houseboat that Jennifer enjoyed, he said.
He also restores old cars.
One of his favorites is a 1960 Corvette that he bought from a person who had begun to restore it but abandoned the project. That project took about five years. He has a couple of others he is preparing to restore, including a Model T he bought from Harless.
“I’m blessed to be able to do all the work myself and enjoy doing that,” White said.
Larry Harless died in 1995. Buck Harless died on New Year’s Day at age 94. White can talk a long time about Buck Harless, who he almost always refers to as Mr. Harless.
“I consider myself to be very, very fortunate, No. 1, to be selected by Mr. Harless to fill a void in his life at that time,” White said.
The lessons and experiences White gained while working for Harless were “invaluable,” he said.
“Mr. Harless substantially reinforced the basic business ethics I already had,” White said. Those ethics came in part from his father, who worked in coal sales and also was pastor of the largest Baptist church in Logan.
Harless had timber and sawmill interests in five states, manufacturing operations in four states and also holdings in real estate and coal, White said.
“It really diversified my horizons and I learned about businesses other than the coal business,” he said. “I also learned a lot from him as to stewardship.
“Mr. Harless felt very strongly that even if you were modestly successful, you had an obligation to share with other people.”
Harless often was approached by people seeking donations, but he wanted to be sure those people were committed to the cause, White said. If a person needed $10,000 for a project, Harless would say he would donate $2,500 after the person had raised $7,500 from other sources. That was a test of how committed people were to their projects, White said.
“I said at his death what we as the general public knew and assumed of the generosity of Mr. Harless, there are more that we know nothing about,” White said. “He was a truly extraordinary individual. He loved this state.”
At 64 years old, White thinks about retirement from time to time.
“I’ll stay involved with James River as long as they need or want me to be around,” he said. “When they no longer want me to be here, I expect my experience and people I know in industry and government will be of value to others.”
But he also recalls what Harless told him.
“He would encourage me to think about working less and Jo Ann and me enjoying life more,” White said. “He died at 94 years old, and he was in the office a week before he died.
“His life was those people, not the company.”
The week White told his story was a tough one for him. His best friend from high school and roommate at Marshall had died unexpectedly.
“I had an experience this week that brings it into focus,” he said. “I think I’ll work less and travel and enjoy it more, but sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair is not where I’ll be.”
There are always more cars to restore. He has that Corvette and the Model T, and there is a 1937 Ford coupe and a 1974 Volkswagen. Just like the one he bought in 1974.