Lessons in Manliness: James B. Harris

There is some truth in the old adage “when the student is ready the instructor will appear.” At least, that was the way I found my mentor. My wife and I had just finished a summer long road trip and needed to find a place to settle our boys before they started school. So we ended up in Lubbock Texas neighbored next to a truly unique and fascinating man, James Booth Harris.

He grew up in rural Louisiana, the oldest son of large family. He spent his days helping raise his siblings, a point of contention with his parents to this day, and helping out in the family owned hardware store. It was an old style hardware store; cramped isles of wooden bins filled will every manner of fastener, dimly lit corners housing every manner of axe, and sported a pressed tin ceiling.

The bookkeeper’s apprentice, a shy girl from across town, soon caught his eye and he could be seen making pilgrimages up to the office to change the trash more regularly and without having to be reminded or
prodded. James was soon escorting Patricia home in the evenings after work and eventually (to her an eternity) he asked her out on Friday night date. His courtship of the assistant bookkeeper would last their entire life and he still asks here out every Friday and Saturday night on a date, although I think he
now has to be reminded to take out the trash bin in office.

In college, James studied the burgeoning field of landscape architecture. Following he moved to Arlington Texas with a young wife, this move left the hardware store in deficit of one assistant bookkeeper. Here he would work for various companies, one of which was Levi Strauss. There he was tasked with the remediation of their runoff sludge, a blue waste product consisting mainly of cotton fiber, blue denim dye, and water. James developed a unique horizontal Archimedean screw that fed the sludge and a manure mixture in the feeder end and expelled vibrant compost out the tail end four or five days later. Through his ingenuity an environmental issue was solved with an environmental solution, this was in the late 60’s/70’s well ahead of the green movement in north central Texas.

As time passed, James spent more time contemplating sharing his knowledge with others. So in mid 80’s he moved to Lubbock and took a teaching position at Texas Tech University. Frustrated with unmotivated students and constant backbiting and bickering of academics, he transitioned back to private sector before retiring in the mid 90’s.

Retired but never idle, James spends his days recycling thrown out items, restoring his first car (yes, first car he ever owned), and volunteering in the community. Sharing his vast knowledge of skills he teaches at multiple guild society’s including but not limited to local wood turners guild and lapidary

Through the years I have known James, he has taught me many lessons and actual skills. I have been truly fortunate to know him and Pat. He is not one to pass on his training in open lesion format, preferring an
observational learning scenario. Here are a few of the lessons he has passed onto me.

There is the right tool for each job:

This lesson of course goes beyond the age-old problem of someone in the house using a knife as a screwdriver. Growing up in hardware store owning family, James became familiar with just about every tool ever made. So he knew the value of using a screwdriver to drive screws or a baseboard saw for the trimming the bottom 1/8th inch off the bottom of baseboards to give enough room for tiles.

On multiple occasions he has told me, there is a tool just for the particular job I was doing around house. Using the right tool will cut your time in the project, and if you do all the work yourself your time is worth it. Otherwise, you could/would pay someone else to do the work.


James Harris recycles everything. Even things that on the surface seem nonrecycleable, he can find a use for. Environmental causes are good and just, however the motivation behind James’ recycling is the tremendous amount of waste that our society generates. We live in west Texas, big open sky country, not many around here think about where something goes when it hits file 13. In fact, many people around here think file 13, is to the left of their open truck window.

James is constantly pulling items out of the dumpster headed for the landfill. He has a couple of different routines he follows. One is for items that are perfectly good or need little repair, get pulled out and sent to those in need. Clothing, small appliances with kid’s toys stuck in them, to vacuum cleaners with a lint jam. In the 13 years I have known him, he has salvaged thousands of dollars worth of small appliances and shop tools.

Other items he recycles are items that can no longer be used, as they were intended but can easily be converted to a useful item. Must have been a habit from parents who
lived through the Great Depression James can see a use for most junked items. I have seen chairs converted to wheel extension cord spools and old bar-b-q grills made into garden planter carts. Instructables website could take
inspiration from his ingenuity.

There are always items that can’t be easily used or modified. So at that point, James will break them down to their component parts and recycle those. He has picked up the nickname “the Professor” by some in the neighborhood for some of slightly wacky and definitely non-traditional recycling methods.


There is a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction gained from growing your own food. I would have never known this pleasure if James had not been my landlord. The back part of the yard had been converted into garden and in typical James fashion he planted the seed in my head by telling me one year, “I’m not going to be able to use the garden this year, you are welcome to use if you want…”. Of course, my wife and I knew nothing about growing anything, in fact far from it. We both had bounties on our head from the American Horticulture Society for excessive use of our brown thumb on plant species.

James watched our horticultural experiments throwing in advice, nonchalantly here and there. Guiding us without telling us, over a period of 4 years he turned my wife and I into gardeners. In fact he inspired us to both become master gardeners.

But, I digress. James grows vegetables to eat. It’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s good for you. If it were not he would not make the investment in time doing it.

Final thoughts:

There are so many things James has mentored me (and my wife) on. So many areas’ I think it would fill an entire book, like volunteering in your community, the joys and responsibilities of owning a old car, learning a hobby to name a few. Perhaps some day, I can do him that honor and write a book dedicated to him, although to do him justice it would have to contain multiple life lesions and none of the overt they would all have to be subtle pearls of wisdom.

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