James Ray Hawkins, a longtime Waco businessman and philanthropist who with his wife, Nell, hosted countless community and social events at their Hawksden estate near Lake Waco, has died after a long illness.
Hawkins was 86 when he died on Nov. 22, according to information provided by the family. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday at First Baptist Church of Waco. A reception will follow.
The Bowie County native of De Kalb had a major impact on what would become his hometown of Waco, starting a company here called J-Hawk that specialized in acquiring and turning around distressed assets – usually owned real estate insolvent – and manage or resell them at a profit. Friends would say Hawkins loved to make deals and enjoyed the Midas touch.
“I don’t have enough time and you don’t have enough ink to describe Jim Hawkins,” said Bland Cromwell, himself a respected industrial and commercial real estate professional who often sat across from Hawkins at the negotiating table. “I worked with him when I first entered the business 46 years ago and we have been involved in countless transactions. He was one of the smartest men I ever knew. I know it’s an overused term… but he helped so many people become rich. He was willing to share his knowledge. He taught me an awful lot as a young realtor, not only in business, but in life and how to treat people.”
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Longtime friend and gin rummy aficionado Rondy Gray said he met Hawkins at a Waco Jaycees civic organization meeting, becoming business partners in 1964.
“He did everything on a handshake, and I’ve never known him to turn down a deal,” Gray said.
He said Hawkins took the same informal approach with Forrest Mars Jr., the billionaire heir to the Mars Inc. candy company, who visited Waco looking for a plant site. Mars opened operations in Waco in 1976, securing the ownership controlled by Gray and Hawkins.
“We didn’t know Mr. Mars, but we met with him and made a deal,” Gray said, adding that the legal team accompanying Mars really wasn’t necessary.
Gray said he and other longtime friends visited Hawkins often until his death, invariably treating him to the banana pudding he loved.
Hawkins formed J-Hawk in the mid-1970s to take advantage of the glut of distressed assets coming to market around the world. These include everything from residential buildings and shopping centers to luxury yachts. Hawkins would tell of a hurricane chasing a hijacked yacht from Florida to Texas.
“We had a portfolio of yacht loans,” said longtime business partner Jim Sartain, commenting on Hawkins’ business acumen and the yacht’s history. “He was a great storyteller and loved to live his stories, I’ll put it that way.”
Sartain said he has known Hawkins since the early 1970s. They had differences of opinion, but that was understandable in their work, Sartain said. He called Hawkins his mentor, “who could smell a deal, got a thrill out of making deals. A lot of that rubbed off on me.”
J-Hawk struck a deal in 1995 that rocked the financial world, acquiring Houston-based FirstCity Financial Corp. and moving her to Waco. FirstCity was a once powerful banking company that had fallen on hard times.
“It was a significant deal, a premium deal,” Sartain said. “It made us a public company and gave us a better balance sheet.”
Hawkins left FirstCity in 2005 to start another company, and Sartain left about two years later. Minnesota-based Varde Partners bought FirstCity in 2013 and later announced it would close the Waco office.
“We’ve had a good job, we don’t always agree, but what do partners do?” Sartain said.
He recalled hunting trips to Mexico with Hawkins and another business leader, Clifton Robinson, and dove hunting in Argentina.
Baylor University released a statement saying, “Jim was a longtime, loyal supporter of Baylor University along with his wife, Nell. It was common to see them sporting their best green and gold at Baylor games or at the Martin Art Museum, where Nell served as a longtime supporter through the Art Angels. The Hawkins family has also long supported the Louise Herrington School of Nursing through the Going for the Gold Gala.”
“Jim Hawkins was a dedicated member of the Baylor community who sought to support the faculty, coaches, students and student-athletes of this university in word and deed,” said Baylor University President Linda A. Livingston, who encouraged prayers for Nell Hawkins.
Hawkins turned down a football scholarship to the University of Arkansas, paying his way to Baylor, where he earned an accounting degree. Hawkins joined the Air Force after college, becoming a weather officer. He became a CPA in 1963 and served as managing partner of the Greenstein & Hawkins CPA firm. He bought Gibson Discount Centers in 1973, having been the chain’s longtime CPA, according to information provided by the family.
The Hawkins family in 2005 made the lead gift to the Baylor women’s basketball practice facility. They traveled to New York in December 2011 at the invitation of good friends Alice and Ken Starr, then Baylor’s president, to attend the Heisman Trophy Banquet honoring Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, according to family information.
They also provided the lead gift for the Baylor Jim and Nell Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center. The family has requested that memorials be made to the James R. Hawkins Endowment Fund at Baylor Hankamer School of Business, McLennon Community College Foundation, Cameron Park Zoo and Fuzzy Friends Rescue.
“Waco lost one of its best,” Cromwell said.