From humble roots, he rose to success
Published 12:02 am Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Richard C. “Buddy” Harper is being remembered this week as a man who overcame humble beginnings as a sharecropper’s son to become a successful businessman.
The founder of Harper Electric was also a family man, known for always looking out for family members and friends and “keeping everything together.”
Buddy Harper bid his first job in 1969. As he got more jobs, his brothers, Robert and Johnny Harper, and their brother-in-law, Scott Dunevant, worked with him.
“He was the oldest and he kept everything together,” Johnny Harper said. “We started with power lines and right-of-way tree trimming.”
In the early days, the company did work for Baldwin County and Covington Electric. Through the years, their reputation and their work expanded, taking them throughout Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and the Carolinas.
Johnny Harper said it was the reputation the company earned as hard workers that got them many jobs.
“We were known for taking bad jobs,” he said, explaining that the Harpers and their employees would work where others wouldn’t. They also had a reputation for working with fewer men, less equipment, and in less time.
He said he and his brothers grew up in a sharecropping family, working in the fields. In high school, he said, Buddy would work before school for L.C. and Bonnie Stokes in their store on South Cotton Street. He also had a paper route.
“We had a motor scooter,” Johnny Harper recalled. “He would come by the house to take a shower, and me and Robert would go finish throwing papers.”
“We grew up trying to survive,” he said.
Pictures tell the stories of what they were able to accomplish, working in rolling hills or chest deep in water building transmission systems. The most difficult job, Johnny Harper recalled, was in Pascagoula, Miss., building a transmission system through the Escatawba swamp just north of I-10. It was one of the first times they worked with concrete poles.
When they bid the job, they were advised to build in the cost of a helicopter. They didn’t. After they broke the first three concrete poles, they realized their original plan wouldn’t work.
Johnny Harper said he went to the river and found a man with an old tugboat and barge with a crane on it.
“The crane hadn’t been off that barge in 30 or 40 years,” he recalled. “We talked them in to helping us.”
It still wasn’t a great plan, and as the first pole was being set, it began lightning.
“It’s a wonder all of us didn’t get struck,” he said. “That was the roughest job we ever did. We had to take a fishing boat to get out there every morning, and we had to climb every one of those poles after we got them in. We didn’t have any bucket trucks out there.”
That story illustrates something Buddy Harper always said, his son Michael remembered.
“He always told us, ‘Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, and do it right now.’
“He told that to his foremen, to his kids, whoever,” he said.
Charlotte Maughon has worked in the family business for almost 34 years.
“He got out and worked,” she said of Buddy Harper.
“The only time we were in the office was to bid a job,” Johnny Harper said. “Buddy always said, ‘the money’s not in the office. The money is out there.’ ”
Harper also was an owner of CCB Community Bank, something he couldn’t have dreamed of growing up, his brother said.
“Heck, we couldn’t even borrow money then,” he said.
What began as a family business is still a family business. Robert Harper and Scott Dunevant are both deceased, but Buddy Harper’s sons Mark and Michael, Dunevant’s son Tony, and Johnny Harper are still a part of Harper Electric.