SYLACAUGA, Ala. (WIAT) — Give or take a couple of years in college, David Pursell worked for his father, Jimmy, ever since he was 12 years old.
David was able to see his father go through extraordinary changes in his life, from becoming a Christian to watching his fertilizer business in Sylacauga become one of the top sellers of lawn and garden products across the country to starting one of the top golf courses in Alabama. However, the memories he cherishes the most of his father, who died Sunday from natural causes at 89 years old, are just of him being around people, in his element.
“Proverbs 22:1 says that a good name is more desirable than great riches,” David said. “Having a good reputation and treating people well is way more valuable than just trying to claw yourself up to the top of the hill and dragging people down while you’re dragging yourself up. I think that’s how he lived his live and it was truly a life well-lived.”
James Taylor Pursell was born in Ashland on July 3, 1930. Growing up in Talladega, Pursell played football at Talladega County High School and was lifelong friends with Jim Nabors, who would go on to play Gomer Pyle on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” In fact, Nabors was Pursell’s best man at his wedding to wife, Chris, in 1953.
After graduating from Auburn University—then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute—in 1952, Pursell joined the Air Force. After a brief stay in California, he was honorably discharged and went back home to Sylacauga with his wife to to work for his father-in-law, Howard Parker, at Parker Fertilizer Company, taking over the business in 1966 after Parker died.
Under Pursell’s leadership, the company expanded to a second branch called Pursell Industries, which became known for Polyon, a fertilizer that quickly became a preferred product for golf courses and landscapers across the country for years.
By 1999, Pursell and David started Pursell Farms, a 3,200-acre golf resort in Sylacauga that the family still lives on and has been listed on Golfweek magazine’s “Best Courses You Can Play” list for seven years in a row. In 2006, he sold the fertilizer business. In 2018, Pursell was inducted in the Alabama Business Hall of Fame.
David said that despite the success his father enjoyed over the years, what really brought him satisfaction was helping others, whether it be giving back to his alma mater or serving on state boards like the Alabama Ethics Commission.
“He was kind of like Johnny Appleseed, dropping lots of money into needs he felt strongly about,” he said.
One of the people whose life changed because of Pursell was John Riley. To Auburn football fans, Riley was better known by his nickname, “Rat,” and as a kicker for the Tigers in the late 1960s. By the time he had met Pursell, Riley had already come and gone from the NFL, having been drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1970 and let go later that season.
By 1976, Riley was working back in Auburn and doing part-time public speaking when Pursell’s son, Taylor, happened to catch a Bible study he was leading at Auburn University.
Before long, Riley and Taylor became friendly and Riley eventually met the elder Pursell at his Sylacauga office. During their conversation, Pursell had asked Riley if he had ever considered doing public speaking on a full-time basis.
“At the time, I hadn’t told anyone that for three years, I had prayed daily that if it was God’s will, I would speak full-time,” Riley said.
Riley still remembers how Pursell looked down at his desk and told him the words that would change his life forever.
“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know you, and I’ve never heard you speak, but I trust my son, so if you want to speak full-time, I’ll hire you as a full-time employee,” he said.
Riley started working for Pursell on August 1, 1976 and continued on his payroll until the company was sold in 2006. In that time, Riley would travel across the country to do public speaking engagements, but always took one day out of the month to speak to Pursell’s employees. Even after the company was sold, Riley continued to speak at Pursell Farms once a month.
“To say that he played a major role in my life would be a drastic understatement,” Riley said. “There’s no telling how many people Jim Purcell has helped spiritually, financially out here.”
One thing that played a large role in Pursell’s life was his faith. In 1976, Pursell became a Christian, gave up smoking and drinking and dedicated his business to Christian principles.
“He had the attitude that we’re not perfect and we’re not going to be perfect, but from this day on, we’re going to run this company based on Biblical principles and do what we can to honor God in our personal and professional lives,” Riley said.
Harold Fickett, author of the Pursell biography “Finding The Ultimate Multiplier: The Story Of Jimmy Pursell,” likened Pursell to another Christian entrepreneur, Chick-fil-A founder Truet Cathy, in how he merged his beliefs with how he did business.
“It used to be that if you were serious about faith, you became a missionary or a pastor and if you were a businessman, you make as much money as you could and give it to the church,” Fickett said. “Jimmy and Truett were part of a movement where they were trying to understand what God wanted them in their business lives as a vocation and they were as much called to their vocation as any priest or clergyman.”
Riley said that like many successful businessmen, Pursell would sometimes talk about his legacy. However, unlike many of them, he didn’t want to be the focus of it.
“His thing was if it came to money, it was that he had put a whole lot of money in helping other people,” he said. “Jimmy never dreamed small. He was always about helping everyone he could.”
Visitation will be open to the public at Pursell Farms’ Hamilton Place between 1 and 4 p.m Friday. A private ceremony and burial will follow.
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