Remembering James “Jimmy” Taylor Pursell, Sr.
July 3, 1930 – June 21, 2020
In today’s modern language, we often eulogize a person by saying their life was “legendary,” elevating their memory to being almost supernatural or mythological. Actually, the origin of the meaning of “legend” comes from the Middle Ages English word, “legende,” which meant “a written account of a saint’s life.” The Jimmy Pursell we all knew and loved wouldn’t want anyone to call him a saint, because he always knew where his strength, favor, and blessing came from: not from any superhuman ability of his, but solely the saving grace of the LORD Jesus Christ.
James Taylor “Jimmy” Pursell was born to Howard and Eunice Pursell, both educators, on July 3rd, 1930. His early childhood years were spent in Ashland, Alabama before the family moved to Talladega. In his teen years, Jimmy attended Talladega High School where his 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds earned him the nickname “Twinkle Toes” as well as a solid spot as scatback for the football team. In the 4th game of their 1947 season, the Tigers were up against their big rival, the Sylacauga Aggies, and Jimmy suffered a broken leg from an opposing defensive tackle. Jimmy was rushed to the hospital and he received a special visit from future Andy Griffith Show & Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. star, Jim Nabors. It was the start of a loyal friendship that would last their entire lifetimes. Nabors would eventually introduce Jimmy to his future wife, Chris Parker.
After graduating from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (the future Auburn University) with a degree in business administration, Jimmy joined the United States Air Force and served as a bombardier navigator in preparation to go overseas to Korea. Chris Parker and her family drove across the country to Mathers Air Force Base in Sacramento, California in the summer of 1953 and on July 10 she and Jimmy were married, with Jim Nabors serving a triple role as best man, usher, and wedding singer. The Korean conflict ended just 2 weeks later so instead of going to war, Jimmy was soon honorably discharged as a First Lieutenant and returned to his wife’s hometown of Sylacauga, Alabama to work alongside his father-in-law, Howard A. Parker, as a salesman for the Parker Fertilizer Company. Jimmy led the way for the company to transition from the days of big agriculture into the lawn and garden business by marketing their newest product, Sta-Green. During these early years, he and Chris had three children: a son, Taylor; a daughter, Chris, and another son, David. Jimmy’s father-in-law passed in 1964 and was unexpectedly followed by his brother-in-law, Howard, Jr. in 1966, so Jimmy then assumed full responsibility for the Parker Fertilizer Company.
It was business as usual until 1976, when Jimmy and his wife Chris both had an encounter with the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jimmy made a radical decision to commit the entire business over to the LORD, and openly gathered all of his employees together to relay the message. To underscore his commitment to follow Christ, Jimmy also chose to forever forsake his partying lifestyle which included a lot of smoking and drinking. During this season, Jimmy and his family bought and restored an old home in Fayetteville, just outside of Sylacauga. They named their little spot “Pennywinkle Farm” and once it was finished, the couple decided to officially retire from city life and begin a new adventure out in the country.
The 1980s saw an explosive move into the international scene of the industry. Jimmy created a second branch of the company, Pursell Industries, through which he began to make strategic plays into the latest advancements of fertilizer technology. In this decade Jimmy oversaw construction and operation of the 4th sulfur-coated urea plant in the world, right in Sylacauga.
This was closely followed by the patent of Polyon, Pursell Industries’ very own controlled-release fertilizer technology. This product eventually became the favored product of golf course superintendents across the world, even at some of the most prestigious clubs.
The increase in business activity brought more and more interaction with customers as well as partners in the industry. Jimmy and Chris opened up Pennywinkle Farm to everyone, frequently hosting cookouts and leading four-wheeler excursions around the property. They only wanted the best accommodations for those whom they hosted, so the couple built a small guest house next door to their own home to provide overnight lodging for folks who needed it. This early hospitality operation would be the beginnings of something even bigger than Jimmy, Chris, or anyone else could imagine.
In the mid-1990s Pursell Industries split into two companies, leaving Pursell Industries to focus on consumer products and the newly formed Pursell Technologies (PTI) to concentrate on the professional golf course and ornamental nursery markets. Jimmy remained in charge of PTI and they decided to move the company headquarters out of town to the country. With the surge in business from the golf course industry, a wild card idea was presented by Jimmy’s son David to build their own golf course on the farm as a dual tool to both entertain customers and serve as a site for turfgrass research and demonstration. In 2001, Jimmy led the charge with a giant backhoe to begin breaking ground on what would eventually be known as FarmLinks: the first research and demonstration golf course in the world. After construction on the course as well as a 3-story 8-bedroom lodge was complete, FarmLinks opened with grand fanfare in 2003 and each year for the next 4 years, Jimmy and the PTI team hosted 1200 golf course superintendents that came from all over North America (and even beyond) to have the “Experience.” In August 2006, a Canadian-based company, Agrium, purchased Pursell Technologies, leaving Jimmy to focus on another mission in his golden years, which was loving and serving others through hospitality. His final legacy with the business was to establish the family-owned boutique resort, Pursell Farms. This included the partnership with the Orvis company with the creation of the Orvis Shooting Grounds, the addition of a 40-room Inn, 2 restaurants, a spa, and the Hamilton Place wedding venue.
Although Jimmy’s achievements in business were outstanding, his real legacy is remembered through countless acts of generosity, both big and small. He made significant investments into civic entities including education, social services, and public policy.
Jimmy served as an elder of Knollwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Sylacauga, was a founding member of Fellowship of Companies for Christ, and served on the Alabama Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In July 1998, the Pursell Family endowed the James T. Pursell, Sr. Eminent Scholar Chair in Ethics at Auburn University College of Business. In addition was created the James T. Pursell, Sr. CHAMPS/Life Skills Program supporting the character and educational development of Auburn University student athletes. Jimmy served as Chairman of the State of Alabama Ethics Commission and was a member of the Alabama Certificate of Need (CON) board. In 2012, Jimmy also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Auburn University College of Human Sciences.
Jimmy received his final earthly accolade in 2018 when he was inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, he gave a short speech, acknowledging his LORD and Savior Jesus Christ for his success, and concluded with the following quote: “When you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he didn’t get there by himself.”
Jimmy is survived by his son Taylor (wife, Lydia), daughter Chris (husband, Aaron), son David (wife, Ellen); 10 adoring grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; hundreds of former and current employees of the fertilizer business and Pursell Farms; and thousands of other men, women, and children in the community and abroad who were each profoundly touched by the ministry of his life that was truly, unequivocally legendary.
*In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to one of the following: Fellowship of Christian Athletes-Auburn University (fca.org/donate), Vapor Ministries (vaporministries.org/donate), or the Fayetteville School Foundation (170 W.W. Averitte Dr., Sylacauga, AL 35151).