James Russell, 1921-2013

James Russell, financial columnist who predicted the dot-com bust, dies at 91

 

ebrecher@miamiherald.com

James Russell, a seasoned wire-service reporter when he arrived at the Miami Herald in 1957, used to tell this story about how shortly thereafter, he became the newspaper’s financial editor and columnist.

Then-Managing Editor George Beebe called Russell to his office, where he found Al Neuharth, assistant managing editor. Neuharth, who’d go on to chair the Gannett media empire, told Russell that he wanted him to write about money and business.

“Surprised is not the right word,’’ Russell wrote in a 2003 memoir. “I was stunned. I said, ‘You know, I barely know the difference between a stock and a bond.’’’

That didn’t seem to matter to the editors, who wanted someone with solid reporting skills who could explain finance to ordinary people.

Russell evolved into a respected voice in the South Florida financial community and a prescient analyst of national trends.

In his final column for the Herald on Nov. 29, 1998, he wrote about 0what would come to be called the “dot-com bubble,’’ which burst two years later.

“It is a rapid growth industry perhaps unrivaled in the annals of American business,’’ he wrote. “And if forecasts of its adherents are correct, what has happened so far in Internet-land is only the beginning. The best is yet to come.’’

But he warned that as “the mania of the moment,’’ it roughly paralleled the Dutch tulip craze in the early 1600s,’’ which ended in disaster.

“Similarly, some Internet enterprises undoubtably will become profitable and fiscally sound,’’ he wrote. “But probably not until a severe shakeout separates the strong from the weak.’’

James Webster Russell, born Nov. 30, 1921, in Shreveport, La., died at his home, The Palace, in Kendall, on Sunday. He was 91.

A combat veteran of World War II in Europe, he flew 65 missions as an Army Air Corps radio operator and waist gunner on a B-26 bomber, ’’ said son-in-law Ryan Dearr.

In his 2003 memoir titled Out of Ouachita: One Man’s Odyssey Through the ‘Greatest Generation,’ he wrote extensively about his wartime experience, including a mission during which his plane lost an engine but managed to land safely.

Russell began his journalism career as editor of the Louisiana State University Daily Reveille. The university honored his lifetime of achievements in 1998, when he was inducted into LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication Hall of Fame.

After the war, he joined the old International News Service — later UPI — in Atlanta. He became INS Miami bureau chief in Miami 1947, where he covered breaking news, sports, even celebrity news.

That’s also where he met his future wife, Jean Buck. INS sent her to Miami to help Russell with society coverage, but when her stint was up, Russell didn’t want her to leave — so he married her in 1949.

From Miami, Russell went to Tallahassee as UPI bureau chief, 1950-1952, then to his wife’s hometown of Atlanta, where they started a family.

He returned to Miami as a Herald reporter in 1957 and was soon promoted to assistant city editor, then business/financial editor. His column ran three days a week until March 1, 1994, then intermittently for another four years.

Russell also did business commentary for WIOD, and freelanced for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Dow Jones Newswire, The Times of London, Gentleman’s Quarterly and Kiplinger Florida Newsletter.

On Feb. 6, 1994, he summed up the changes he’d seen in South Florida since 1957.

“The three-legged economy of tourism, agriculture and construction that existed then has broadened into a widely diversified complex of people and industries whose focus increasingly is international.’’

He called it “an era of progress and controversy, successes and failures, and intriguing personalities whose influence helped or hindered the state’s image and well-being. ‘’

His business “heroes’’ included James A. Ryder, “the Miami truck driver who created the nation’s largest truck leasing firm; James MacLamore, co-founder of Burger King and a civic leader of note; Alvah Chapman, the newspaper executive who has led numerous civic betterment campaigns in South Florida, and the three Mackle brothers...in creating new communities throughout Florida.’’

He noted the overriding presence of “the ill-fated Eastern Airlines, whose impact on the region is immeasurable... If only the likes of Eastern founder Eddie Rickenbacker and the company’s last important leader, Frank Borman, could have converted the airline’s dominant position into lasting success.’’

He wrote that the post-Castro Cuban migration “brought a wave of industrious entrepreneurs and doers to Florida’s shores, hastening the emergence of Miami as a place where the entire Southern Hemisphere and much of the rest of the world wanted to do business.’’

After he retired, Russell and his wife traveled the world, said daughter Nancy Dearr, of Miami. That, and following the Miami Dolphins, were her father’s hobbies, she said.

“They would rent a flat in London and stay for several weeks,’’ she said. “They liked cruising and loved the mountains North Carolina.’’

After Jean Buck Russell died in 2002, Jim Russell met a widow, Sylvia Sheldon, with whom he shared a “commitment celebration’’ in 2004.

“Never too late to fall in love,’’ Russell, then 82, told the Herald.

In addition to daughter Nancy and Sylvia Sheldon, Russell is survived by daughter Eileen Russell, of Atlanta.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy. Burial will follow at Woodlawn South in Kendall.

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