In Profile: Sharecropper to entrepreneur _lowres

Advocate photo by DEBORAH BURST - Murray James has recently published his memoir, 'A Poor Man Can Survive.'

Hoe in hand, Murray James is landscaping in the garden of one of his clients, Covington resident Patricia Clanton. Clanton is a good friend of James and assisted him in writing his memoir, “A Poor Man Can Survive.”

The book brings the reader back to a time when families struggled, but always found a way to survive. Many times living off the land with multiple jobs.

James was born in the town of Uneedus, in Tangipahoa Parish, on Feb. 4, 1938 in a family with 12 children. He had three brothers and eight sisters and said in the book, “I was just about in the middle of the pack.”

His family lived on a farm, but it was someone else’s land, and his father had to give half of the money from the cotton crop to the landowner. James remembers they had very little to spare and when he was six years old, his father sent him out to the fields with a sack to pick cotton.

Soon his father bought 40 acres of land for $375, but had to borrow the money from the bank. All the children worked to help pay off the loan.

James worked at a nursery on weekends and holidays, picked beans on other farms and in the winter picked tung nuts. Although he never finished school, he found a way to survive, and his life changed forever when he met Barton Hebert Jr. on April 4, 1960.

Hebert was struck with polio five years earlier and it left him paralyzed from his waist up. He lived with a portable respirator during the day and was placed in an iron lung tank at night.

James was hired to take care of Hebert’s every need, feeding, showering, and driving Hebert to Southeastern University in Hammond. It was long hours, arriving at 5:30 a.m. and working till 5:30 or 6:30 in the evening.

Hebert graduated in 1964 and began a 36-year career as a stockbroker with E. F. Hutton and Company.

“We were just like brothers, and his mother, Mrs. Hebert, was just like my own mother,” said James in his book.

“It was quite an experience sitting in the classroom with him in college,” James said. “You always learn something when you are in a classroom.”

Throughout his book, James often repeats the title, which is his anthem, “A Poor Man Can Survive.” At 77 years old he continues to work hard at several jobs.

After Hebert died, Murray began working as head of Security Personnel for the Greater Covington Center and began his own landscaping business. In addition, he works part time as a bartender for parties and is a landlord for several rental properties.

James is pleased with his book and enjoys sharing the stories of his childhood and introducing his family members. One story is particularly poignant and shows his immense love for his mother, who he called “mama.”

He learned how to cook watching his mother in the kitchen and often would pick fresh berries and figs for preserving. One day, his mother mentioned she would like to have a shade tree.

Only 10 or 12 years old, he began combing the woods looking for a tree. He spotted a small tree about 3 feet tall and dug it up and planted it near the house.

“I didn’t know I had chosen a live oak tree and today it is about three feet wide with a spread of about 100 feet,” he said in his book. It’s also the location of their family reunion every year around his mother’s birthday in June.

“I love [meeting] there where we all grew up and it pleases me to meet under the beautiful spread of the oak tree that I planted for mama.”

Today, James is proud of his children and grandchildren. If they wanted to go to college, James found a way to pay their way. He and his wife, Elsie, have been married for 43 years, and they have one son, three daughters, two stepsons, and fifteen grandchildren.

Besides chronicling his life, James also wrote the book to help others.

“I hope my book can help a less fortunate person who is struggling with real life,” he said. “So they can see the way ‘A Poor Man Can Survive.’ ”

Murray James will be speaking and signing books at Christwood Retirement Home at 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, at 100 Christwood Boulevard, Covington. For information, contact Christwood at (985) 898-0515,

Deborah Burst writes about people behind-the-scenes of organizations and events in St. Tammany Parish. To reach her, email