Sunday, January 8, 2023

From 2004: "Joe Hardy: The Billionaire who's Bound to Die Broke"

Pittsburgh Magazine in 2004 asked to write a cover story about Joe Hardy, founder of 84 Lumber and Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Flawed and controversial, I remember him as one of my favorite interviews ever. He died yesterday, his 100th birthday.

Joe Hardy: The Billionaire Who's Bound to Die Broke
Pittsburgh Magazine
By Chris Rodell

It's become fashionable for cheeky reporters to ambush aging celebrities with impudent questions about their Viagra usage. Recent targets include Larry King (yes); Englebert Humperdink (yes); Walter Cronkite (no comment); and Hugh Hefner (take a wild guess). When a Golf Magazine reporter put the question to the venerable Arnold Palmer (no), outraged readers responded with angry letters. So, no, Joe Hardy, casually dressed in gold shorts and a blue 84 Lumber Pennsylvania Classic sports shirt, will not be subjected to such intimate questioning. It would be unseemly to ask the founder of 84 Lumber, right now slouched so luxuriously in a plush leather chair he looks as if he might magically morph into a spare cushion, if he does or does not use Viagra.

Especially when there is abundant biological evidence that Joe Hardy is Viagra.

It's true. Pulses race when Hardy enters a room. Palms begin to sweat. Limp, slouching postures improve. Men become more, and there's no better word for it, erect. Same goes for the gals.

"He has an undeniable presence," says Uniontown businessman Steve Neubauer. "The man has charisma that just lights up a room. People are drawn to him."

That's what happens when a gregarious 81-year-old billionaire loudly and publicly announces he is on a mission to die broke. "Absolutely," he says. "I do want to die broke. For the remainder of my life, I want to enjoy and participate in the giving of money to help improve people's lives."

It's true, you can't take it with you. In Hardy's case, that's heaven's loss. He's is in the mahogany paneled Cigar Bar off the opulent lobby at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington. He looks so expansively relaxed there's a concern he might slide off the leather and contentedly answer questions in a supine position. While the rest of his body is in serene repose, he has the animated face and dancing eyebrows of a mad scientist and, in a way, that's exactly what he is. Who but a mad scientist could turn lumber into gold? He began conducting that lucrative alchemy in 1952 when he opted out of the successful family jewelry business to found the colossal building supply company that in 2003 did about $2.5 billion in sales.

He is larger than life, larger even than the comparatively svelte statue of himself that looks out over the 2,500 idyllic acres of Fayette County he began buying in 1987 when he purchased the old Rockwell estate and 400 acres in 1986 for $3.1 million. Today, Nemacolin is one of America's premier resort destinations, annually serving more than 300,000 guests spending $50 million each year. Travel + Leisure listed it in its World Best awards, and this month Joe and his daughter and protege Maggie Hardy Magerko unveiled Falling Rock, a 42-room, $55 million lodge that surpasses even the resort's ultra-posh Chateau LaFayette. Room-per-elegant-room, it is among the most expensive hotels ever built in North America and Hardy is determined it be regarded as among the finest.

"This will be our crown jewel," he says.

It is the latest bauble in a string of jaw-dropping extravagances that include the magisterial Woodlands Spa; a shooting academy; an equestrian center; a 20-mile Hummer driving experience course; an adventure center that features paintball, rock climbing, archery and a mid-air obstacle rope course; a ski center; and since 1995, Mystic Rock, the Pete Dye golf course that is the site of the P.G.A.'s 84 Lumber Pennsylvania Classic on September 20-26.

"Some people come back once a year just to see what else the jackass has done," Hardy says.

And the jackass has been doing plenty. It's been seven months since the GOP candidate was sworn in as a full-time Fayette County Commissioner, a $40,173-a-year job he spent $566,000 to win -- ("At least," he says, "people know I'm not in it to steal!") -- and he has been spending time and his fortune lavishing Fayette, one of Pennsylvania's poorest counties, and downtown Uniontown with ideas, cheer and in excess of $5 million from his own pocket. He's given money to improve store fronts, he's donated property-brightening works of art, and he's looking to purchase nuisance bars just so he can serve up a truly last call for troublesome taverns. He's taken squads of public servants and concerned citizens around the country on his Lear jet to learn first-hand what other progressive communities are doing to succeed. He's doing it all without any apparent selfish motivation. "I want to help people," he says simply.

Still, some still believe Hardy is a Kanamit masquerading as a Republican. Fans of the "Twilight Zone" will remember Kanamits as the bulb-headed aliens who landed their flying saucers in the United Nations parking lot and emerged with promises to end all earthly conflict and hunger. Like Hardy, the Kanamits contended they'd arrived out of the blue simply "To Serve Man," the deciphered title of a popular Kanamitian book. But the true horror of their mission was revealed when "To Serve Man" was translated to be, yikes, a cookbook.

There is no evidence that Hardy is out to consume any plump, tender Fayette County residents and none, colleagues say, that he is anything but whole-heartedly altruistic. Maybe that's what, sadly, makes him such an extra-terrestrial sort of curiosity. We're not used to seeing someone with the means and the ambitious will to help improve the lives of his fellow man, although it shouldn't be an alien situation to Fayette Countians familiar with the generous legacy of the late philanthropist Robert Eberly Sr., a man Hardy cites as an inspirational mentor. When Eberly, 85, died in May, Hardy told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the reason he ran for office "was to put in place some of the things (Eberly) dreamed of."

Minority Democratic commission colleague Vincent Vicites says he thinks Hardy "has the very best of intentions. In part directly because of Joe Hardy, I see a real difference in attitude. A feeling of pride is coming back to Fayette County. He thinks no goal is unattainable and that kind of positive attitude by a man who has achieved so much is infectious."

Still, there is lingering suspicion among hardcore cynics like plumber James Zahron, a frequent critic on the letters-to-the-editor pages of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. "Joe Hardy's not helping anyone but himself," Zahron says. "Everything he's doing is for his own personal benefit. He's got the power, the money and he wants to show everyone he can do whatever he wants. He's a very arrogant man."

Herald-Standard managing editor Mark O'Keefe says the newspaper, too, was professionally skeptical of Hardy's unexpected run for office. "A lot of people in town were questioning his motives," O'Keefe says. "No one could understand why a man of his age and lifestyle would want to get involved in local politics. He said he wants to give back to the community and there's been no indication of any ulterior motive to the contrary. And the man has a way of winning people over. People are very excited that he does seem to be committed."

But even organizations that should be unabashed Hardy boosters seem conflicted by the billionaire's presence -- and presents. When Pittsburgh Magazine contacted the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce to ask them some softball questions about Hardy's impact on the community, an awkward silence ensued from a building that thrills to knock softball questions over the fences. Uncomfortable seconds passed before an almost rehearsed statement came haltingly through the telephone ear piece: "We have to treat all our members equally. There will be no one available for comment on this matter. Goodbye." Click.

Huh? It's like Indiana becoming mum about Jimmy Stewart. Not talk about Joe Hardy? Love him or hate him, he celebrates life with a gusto that should never result in speechlessness. He self-deprecatingly counsels remaining skeptics to "be practical . . . Gee, maybe you won't have an idiot like me come around for another 50 years. Take advantage of it."

It's common sense from an uncommon man, someone who once called a local reporter to thank him for comparing him in print to Jed Clampett. A son of Joseph and Kathryn Hardy, Hardy is the result of what he calls his jeweler father's "genteel pseudo-aristocracy" and his domineering mother's plain-spoken drive. "She was born on the wrong side of the tracks and had something to prove and she was going to prove it through her sons. If I was hanging around with someone she didn't like, she'd say, 'Why are you spending time with someone like that? You're someone special. You're going to amount to something.' Boy, she was tough."

In the early 1950s, Hardy was the most productive of 50 salespersons for Hardy & Hayes, the Tiffany's of Pittsburgh. The business had been founded by his paternal grandfather (his maternal grandfather was a union bricklayer, and the sympathetic mix, he says, has helped him throughout life relate to both the rowdy and the refined).

But he was dissatisfied working for someone else, even family, and at the suggestion of boyhood friend Ed Ryan of Ryan Homes, Hardy and his two brothers, Norman and Bob, ventured into the materials supply business and in 1952 opening Green Hills Lumber in McMurray. Four years later the trio purchased a tract of land in the tiny Washington County town of Eighty-Four. Hardy liked the sound of the name and, thus, 84 Lumber was born.

During this time, he was still working zestfully and maniacally to please his mother, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing -- sometimes doing both on spectacular levels.

"I remember this one time I was going to a store opening in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I asked her if she wanted to go. She said, 'Can you give me 15 minutes?' What a gal! I'd just bought this new Mustang and she didn't like it. Thought it was too flashy. But she got in and we drove out there and I worked my tail off from Monday through Saturday. I was just shot. I said, 'Mom, I gotta have a couple of beers.' We were driving home through Ohio and I got pulled over. Next thing I know, they take us both to jail. She's in one cell and I'm in the other and I spent the whole night listening to her, 'I told you you never should have bought that Muskrat!'"

Hardy made headlines when he was arrested June 1, 2001, at 12:33 a.m. after Rostraver Township Police observed his vehicle veer off the road. His blood-alcohol level was .14 when the legal limit was .10. Court observers recall he was so dapperly dressed that, had he been wearing a monocle, he would have been a dead ringer for the Monopoly Man. He agreed to participate in the state's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, serve one-year's probation, a 30-day suspension of his driver's license, undergo an 18-hour highway safety driving program and pay $1,027 in court costs, fines and restitution. He'd been driving an $89,500 Mercedes-Benz SL-500, a luxurious vehicle every bit as conspicuous as a ragtop Muskrat.

It will be his mother he says he'll be thinking about at the unveiling of Falling Rock. The ceremonies will bring a host of fresh gushing from travel magazines that sell readers worldwide on the splendid joys of Nemacolin, a place many native Pittsburghers still seem to bestow with an Oz-like mystique.

"There are still a lot of people in Pittsburgh who still don't know much about Nemacolin," says resort spokesman Jeff Nobers. "Many people think it's just a spa. Or they think it's just golf. Or that it's a place that you have to be an overnight guest of to enjoy when that's not true. This is a spectacular place to come for just a day to enjoy a fine meal, one of the activities, or just walk around. People need to know what a wonderful recreational asset this is for western Pennsylvania."

The only thing better than visiting Nemacolin is taking someone who's never been. There are centuries-old European palaces that aren't the elegant equivalent of the main lobby of the Chateau Lafayette. Nine splendid chandeliers illuminate plushly upholstered furniture, fine works of art, and tasseled curtains hanging inside beveled floor-to-ceiling windows. A winding hallway takes guests past Lautrec, past more spotlit works of art by internationally renown artists, and eventually to the Heritage Court boutique shopping area. In between is the Golden Trout Restaurant, nearly one dozen dining halls, meeting areas and tiny, open serenity rooms with Tiffany lamps, fish-filled fountains, checkerboards, sprawling plants and inviting chairs and sofas.

Beyond the Heritage Court, just a short stroll from the modern-day Mr. Clampett's cee-ment pond with its swim-up bar (Paradise Pool) is the world's largest free-standing indoor aquarium. At the bottom is a solid gold bar that looks ample enough to make a nice down payment on a professional sports franchise. So why doesn't Hardy liberate the pirate's treasure and spend it on some other Pirates that baseball fans are aching to treasure?

"Oh, no, I'm not interested," he says. "The Penguins either. If anything, I'd buy the Steelers. But I'm busy enough without a professional sports franchise to look after."

Besides being busy with Nemacolin and Fayette County, Hardy devotes an hour of each day calling friends and acquaintances around the world to wish them happy birthday, happy anniversary or simply to chat. He's a great-grandfather who just a few years ago was changing the diapers of his own children. He and the late Dorothy Pierce Hardy raised five children and enjoyed a 50-year-marriage when Joe Hardy initiated a process that in July 1995 landed the old lumber salesman on the pages of the nation's scandal sheets right beside the celebrity doings of Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and other Hollywood luminaries.

He left his wife and took up with Debbie Maley, a coal miner's daughter and a 19-year-old secretary at the original 84 Lumber store when she and Hardy met. She was six years younger than Joe and Dorothy Hardys's youngest child.

"Angry Wife Refuses Tycoon's $200 Million Divorce Offer -- She Wants More Because He Left Her For a Younger Woman," screamed the National Enquirer. The tabloid reported that the then 24-year-old Maley was pregnant with Hardy's child and that an outraged Dorothy was going to make him pay. Locals joked that -- "Timmberrr!!!" -- 84 Lumber was going to be re-named 42 Lumber. Terms of the 1997 divorce were never disclosed.

"Dorothy was a lovely person," he says of his first wife, who died in December 2002 at the age of 79. "She was normal. She wanted a normal life. I'd be here and she'd be in Florida and I'd say, 'I'm so lonely,' and she'd say, 'You know where I am.' She was a lovely person. She raised five great kids. I was the cracked one. I'm still the raging bull that has to keep moving."

He kept moving past his second wife, too. The pair split in 2001 in a divorce that appears more amicable than many rocky marriages. It was a smiling and bejeweled Debbie, today 32, on his arm June 26 during the 14th annual Royal Reception, and Hardy dotes on Paige, 9, and Taylor, 8, two children who, incidentally, were conceived several years before Bob Dole showed up in television ads touting Viagra.

Some have said his efforts as commissioner and his philanthropy only serve to pave the way for him to raise the profile and profits of Nemacolin, an argument that can best be dismissed with a Socratic "So what?"

Nemacolin pays millions in property taxes and employs 1,000 Fayette County taxpayers as Hummer driving instructors, wine stewards, butlers and masseurs, many of whom are sons and daughters of retired coal miners who thrill that their descendants can earn their comparatively soft livings with horizon-expanding opportunities in such palatial environs.

Hardy says one of the best things you can teach a child is to enjoy their work. It's a maxim he's apparently applied to his employees. A fun game to play at Nemacolin is to simply ask any employee, "What's your best Joe Hardy story?" The responses are amusing and uniformly affectionate, and often include sidebar praise for Maggie, who shares her father's gift of having both the Midas and the common touch.

Commissioner Vicites dismisses as ludicrous any criticism that a thriving Nemacolin means only good things for Joe Hardy. "Nemacolin is a tremendous asset for Fayette County that keeps getting better and better."

Vicites points out that Fayette County is the only contiguous western Pennsylvania county without a direct major highway linking it to Pittsburgh. When the Mon-Fayette Expressway is completed, places like Uniontown will become bedroom communities in one of the most scenic counties in the state, one with abundant recreational activities that more affluent counties could never hope to duplicate. "Fayette County has tremendous potential," Vicites says, "and that potential could soon be realized."

Steve Neubauer, 43, has owned the melodically sounding Neubauer's Flowers at 3 Gallatin Avenue in Uniontown for 22 years. He's seen Uniontown take a growth cycle not unlike a rare perennial. It appeared on the verge of death, but now seems about to blossom after a long period of dormancy.

"The joke in town is that you'd better not stand still too long on Main Street or you're going to get sand-blasted or power-washed," Neubauer says. In that same period of time, he's seen his fragrant business grow, ironically, like a weed. In 1982, he employed six people. Today, he signs paychecks for 60. He's been Nemacolin's house florist since 1998 and he's the man Hardy comes to see when he wants to fertilize Uniontown with some of his own greenery.

"He called one cold Saturday in January and asked if I could take a drive with him," Neubauer recalls. "I said sure. We were driving around town looking at the store fronts and he says, 'How would you like to help me spend $1 million?' My first thought was he'd picked up the wrong guy. But his platform for county commissioner was to clean up and revitalize downtown Uniontown and he's serious about it. I think Joe Hardy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. It's a very, very exciting time."

The bronze statue of Joe Hardy overlooking Nemacolin has "Nothing Is Impossible" in relief on its base. The likeness succeeds in capturing his sweeping optimism, his exuberant warmth and the Pied Piper pull of an American dreamer whose largesse and life will inspire long after he's gone. It fails only in its slim attempt to capture the man's generous dimensions.

Hardy laughs at the discrepancy. "Yeah, the statue looks like a 200-pound man I ought to be. I'm up to about 260."

Sure, no one's going to live forever, but if anyone ever does you might want to wager it'll be Joe Hardy. He's serene when seated, but when he's conducting a tour of Falling Rock he exudes so much bubbly charm and vigor you wonder if his blood is carbonated. The Mt. Lebanon High School lineman, class of 1941, races up four flights of stairs without limp or complaint. Can he live forever?

"I tell ya, I really hope to live to be 84," he grins in anticipation. "Boy, that's going to be a party. What fun we're going to have fun with that."

Joe Hardy, whose resort uses Fernando Bertolo's "Fat Bird" as its charming and chubby logo, has become the rarest of birds himself: he's a billionaire you can root for, a self-made man who earned a spectacular fortune in 2-by-4s but somehow escaped ever becoming chairman of the bored.

You want him to live to be 84 just so you can hear about the audacious party Hardy. You want him to spend his millions enriching the lives and dreams of people who want to believe someone like Hardy is in their corner, even as one palm-up hand is extended while the other is scratching their befuddled heads. You want him to earn another fortune and then sit back and watch him blow it all in six giddy months. You want him to live past 100 and father triplets to supermodels at the age of 104.

Sure, you can still resent that you're comparatively poor, but if someone has to be fabulously wealthy, rejoice, by God, that it is Joe Hardy.

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