A heart of gold
A little boy with cancer, a teen who needs a new kidney, a 4-H kid selling a hog, flower corsages on Mother's Day …
Farmer Jim Puckett has pulled his checkbook out of the pocket of his bib overalls and given to countless causes in Crook County.
"I can't take it with me," the 77-year-old lifelong Prineville resident says.
He was born to farmers Bonnie and Earnestine Puckett two days after they arrived in Prineville from the Klamath Basin in 1941. He was the third of eight children. Two sisters did not live to adulthood.
Other than the four years he spent in the military, Puckett has lived in Prineville his whole life.
He admittedly likes to gamble and drink, and he likes women — he's been married and divorced four times — but he has a heart for the folks of his hometown.
Whatever the cause, whoever is in need, you can be sure old Jim Puckett has worked behind the scenes to help make things a little easier for those less fortunate.
After he got out of the service in 1965, he got started in farming — perhaps the biggest gamble of his life.
And it paid off.
"My first year out, a fellow by the name of Don Yancey leased me 45 acres and financed me for spuds, and I went from there," Puckett recalls. "I was a big potato producer up until '78, and I lost my butt."
Not one to let anything get him down, he tried growing mint, peppermint and spearmint.
"Peppermint treated me really good through the '80s, '90s. Had a slump in the first 2000s until about 2010, and then it become pretty profitable again," he says.
Over the years, he's also raised garlic, alfalfa, wheat, grass hay, carrot seed and sugar beets.
He's made some cash buying and selling land, distilling peppermint, and getting lucky in Reno.
"I got most of my money by working my (tail) off," he confirms.
His place on McKay is 80 acres, but he's owned 600-some acres through the years and leased thousands of acres. He farmed for Hudspeths, Rhodens, Les Schwab and Don Krider.
"Never had one piece of paper between all these people that I leased from — not one piece of paper, which was many, many, many thousands of dollars," Puckett says. "We had a handshake, and that's what it was."
Not only did he start farming in 1965, but that was the year he first delivered flower corsages to grandmothers for Mother's Day.
He quickly learned that ladies love flowers.
Over the years, he'd order dozens of corsages from Bob's Flowers and personally deliver them to local grandmas. It would take him all day Saturday before Mother's Day and all Sunday morning to make his deliveries and have a little visit with each lady.
"I enjoyed doing that, going and making them feel good — that's what it was all about," Puckett says. "Last year was the first year I didn't deliver 'cause of my health reasons."
And each October, when the Rotary Club sells roses, Jim Puckett is their biggest customer.
Rotarian Bill Zelenka says they've been selling and delivering roses for Puckett ever since they started the fundraiser about 30 years ago.
"He usually buys 40 dozen in a whack," Zelenka says. "Besides buying for some individuals, he always buys them for the ladies up at the nursing home."
"I enjoy doing it because some of them would call me up and tell me that they'd never had a dozen roses delivered to them in their life," Puckett grins.
Rotarian Donna Barnes says they appreciate Puckett's unwavering generosity.
"I am sure there are several ladies who have been graced by flowers purchased by Jim and don't even know he was behind it," she says.
Rotarians also call him up when they're doing their annual Rotary on the Radio scholarship fundraiser on April Fools' Day. Yet again, Puckett opens his checkbook and hands over enough money for a couple of scholarships.
"Year over year, we can count on him to be an hourly sponsor during Rotary on the Radio," Barnes says. "Jim has always been a big supporter of ours."
"We have at least two major fundraisers for our Rotary Club, and I hit him up both times," Zelenka chuckles. "He's one of these guys that you give him a call, and he never says no. He always says yes."
Zelenka also solicits Puckett when planning Humane Society of the Ochocos fundraisers.
"I can count on him to either contribute or buy auction items," he says.
And Puckett has helped out countless kids.
"Kids are good. I've always been fond of kids," he says, noting that he has two children and eight grandchildren, and he helped raise five stepchildren.
He always attends the 4-H and FFA livestock auction at the conclusion of the Crook County Fair and comes away with more meat than he knows what to do with.
He's bought animals from family members and from the kids of his employees and people he leased property from. He bought a steer and a pig cut and wrapped each year for every one of his employees — that was 18 people in his heyday.
"Through 4-H, they were quite expensive that way," he quipped, adding that he often donated the meat to the local senior center and also to senior citizens.
"I've been with him at a lot of the auctions during fair time, and he usually buys four or five animals from kids," Zelenka says. "He's bought animals and never even takes them. He's doing it for the kids."
Puckett's generosity is unending — and often unknown.
He hears about a young relative's classmate who needs a kidney transplant — he writes a check. He reads about a little boy with cancer — he writes a check. A Crook County sports team is raising money for travel expenses — he writes a check.
He's a lifetime member of the local VFW, Elks Lodge, Eagles and Masons, and he financially supports all of them, whether it's through a Christmas auction, Bingo or a dinner. For many years, he bought Thanksgiving turkeys for all of the local firemen.
Puckett was also a member of the Pioneer Memorial Hospital Foundation. For 28 years, he's sponsored a tree during the annual Hospice Christmas Tree Auction — one year giving $20,000 for one tree.
"I do it in memory of some person that impressed me in my life," he says. "They were extremely good to me through the years. They had lots of property, and they did lots of good things for Jim Puckett."
He retired from his Ochoco Mint Growers business in November of 2014.
A couple months ago, he had an auction at his place and put his house up for sale. He sold off his bronze statues, guns, paintings and items that he has collected over the years. It was hard to see it go.
"You get attached to it — I do, at least. I had several pieces I was really attached to," he says.
But, he reminds himself, he can't take it with him when he goes.
"I have been extremely lucky and been very fortunate."