In Remembrance: John O. Batson ’50MF Died on February 5 2019

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John O. Batson, a lumber industry veteran whose ambition and love of adventure took him around the South and the world, died on February 5, 2019. He was 94.

From a young age Batson had planned to work in the lumber business founded by his grandfather, Randolph Batson— who, beginning in the 1890s, had built up vast holdings of timberland across Mississippi and had started a program to reforest the land. But those plans were disrupted by the deaths in rapid succession of his grandfather, who died in October 1948 at the age of 85, and his father, Claud Batson, who died in December of that same year, aged just 56. After their deaths, Ran Batson’s other children decided to sell the timberland, and Batson had to strike out on his own. 

Batson spent the 1950s and 1960s managing sawmills and working in related businesses in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, moving his growing family around with him. In 1970, he bought a sawmill on the outskirts of Hammond, Louisiana, which would become the Batson Lumber Company. According to local legend, he came to the attention of the Hammond business community when he walked into Citizens Bank to open an account carrying a briefcase filled with a million dollars in cash. Whether this is true or not, he was later invited to serve on the Citizens board.

Batson spent a decade as president and CEO of his own company, working to modernize its business practices. He was one of the first in the industry to hire a woman, Patsy Jones, as a sawmill manager, and also set up a pension plan for his sawmill workers, a benefit that was almost unheard of in the South for such laborers. In 1976, he helped found Albany Woodworks, which reclaims antique heart pine and cypress, and continues to operate today in Tickfaw, Louisiana.

Batson inherited a love of learning and an intellectual curiosity from his mother and grandmother, and would insist that all six of his children receive the best education possible. From 1973 to 1976, his company sponsored a lecture series at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, which brought nationally famous figures, including Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, to the area. “He was one of the most gifted, delightful, and unfailingly interesting people I have known,” said C. Howard Nichols, professor emeritus of history at Southeastern and a longtime family friend.

The Batson Lumber Company closed its doors during the recession of 1980, and Batson started over again as an independent consultant. For the next three decades, Batson advised family-owned lumber businesses around the South on management and finance. He also used his expertise on the international front, traveling to Russia, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua to research export opportunities and industry practices in those countries. 

Rusty Wood, a longtime client of Batson’s at Tolleson Lumber Company in Perry, Georgia, recalled that in 1990, during a deep downturn in the lumber industry, “We were on our knees, and I called John Batson with one word: Help!” Wood credits Batson’s work with the company’s ability to recover and expand after its troubles: “I said to myself, this old gentleman has three times the energy that I do, and I’m a workaholic.”

In 1984, Batson endowed an annual lecture series on business ethics at the Southeastern Louisiana University College of Business, in memory of the late James Livingston, a longtime friend and colleague, and his wife Evelyn. Batson was also active in professional associations and served as president of the Southern Forest Products Association in 1979–80. In 2011, he was inducted into the Mississippi Forestry Hall of Fame. His portrait hangs next to that of his grandfather in the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson.

John Oscar Batson II was born on July 23, 1924, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the second son of Claud L. Batson and Mary Bryan Batson. He and his brother, Blair E. Batson, grew up in the tiny sawmill town of Orvisburg, Mississippi, where his paternal grandfather, Randolph Batson, owned the mill and his maternal grandmother, Mary Bryan, was principal of the three-room school.

He served in the US Army during World War II and received a Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart for being wounded in action. After being discharged from the army, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He received his BA in 1948. 

In 1950 he completed a master’s in forestry at Yale University. He then taught forestry and botany at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he met his first wife, Mary Florence Shofner. They were married in 1952, and the couple moved to Bellamy, Alabama, where Batson was the general manager of the Allison Lumber Company. They had four children: John Oscar Batson III, Mary Hepburn Batson, Florence Blair Batson, and Elizabeth Bryan Batson. In 1961, the family moved to Fulton, Alabama, where Batson managed the Scotch Lumber Company. 

The couple divorced in 1968, and Batson moved with the children to Jackson, Mississippi, where he worked at Hood Industries. Batson married his second wife, Frances Beryl Horn, in 1969, and the family moved to Hammond, Louisiana, in 1970 when he formed the Batson Lumber Company. Two more children were born during their time in Hammond: Andrew Graves Batson and Virginia Kerr Batson.

He and Frances later divorced, and he married his third wife, Sally O’Keeffe Gurley, in 1993. Based out of Roswell, Georgia, Batson continued to work as a consultant into his 80s, thriving on the exchanges with his old friends and clients, although he spent more time fishing and traveling. With his wife or other family members he went to, among other places, China, Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Morocco, Germany, Australia, and Antarctica.

Batson did not retire until 2010, when back problems left him unable to travel easily. In 2016, he moved to Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where his daughter Bryan and her husband Sergio Jauregui had opened a business. Batson spent his final years at their home in the company of his brother Blair, a retired professor of pediatrics, who died in November 2018. Every evening, without fail, he would watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean.

Batson is survived by his six children: John O. Batson III of Lake Oswego, Oregon; Molly Batson Smith of Atlanta, Georgia; Florence Blair Batson of Jackson, Mississippi; Bryan Batson Jauregui of Todos Santos, Mexico; Andrew Batson of Seattle, Washington; and Virginia Batson of Collingswood, New Jersey; and his four grandchildren: Bryan Smith of Athens, Georgia; Annie Smith of San Francisco, California; and Griffin Batson Grant and Tristan Batson Grant of Collingswood, New Jersey.

Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. on February 23, 2019, at the Poplarville Cemetery, Pearl River County, Mississippi, where Batson will be buried next to his father and grandfather. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to support the College of Business Ethics Lecture series, c/o Southeastern Louisiana University Foundation, SLU 10703, Hammond, Louisiana 70402: or the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children, c/o the UMMC Office of Development, 2500 N. State St., Jackson, MS 39216.

—Submitted by the family.

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