James Lawrence Lears, a construction firm owner who built several North Baltimore neighborhoods and was a veteran of the Allied invasion of France, died Tuesday of a stroke at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The West Towson resident was 78.
In 1958, he founded Charles Engineering Inc., a construction firm he named for the Charles Street location of a pay telephone he used to get his first contract for a building job.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Taplow Road in Homeland, Mr. Lears was a 1942 graduate of Loyola High School and was in a pre-medicine course at the Johns Hopkins University when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. Trained as a gunner, he sailed to the British Isles aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted as a troop carrier.
Mr. Lears landed at Normandy on June 7, 1944, on the second day of the invasion. A member of the Army's 87th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, he was part of a five-man crew on a self-propelled howitzer that resembled a tank.
In a memoir he left, he said of his war experiences, "I really didn't know much and I guess it was better that I didn't. It stopped being exciting when I realized it's not maneuvers any longer and someone is trying to kill you. ... But Hitler had to be taken out."
He also recalled the military success at Saint Lo, when the Allies completed seven weeks of hard fighting and liberated France.
At the German surrender in 1945, Mr. Lears and other members of his unit celebrated the downfall of the Third Reich with a 150-bottle case of champagne they bought from a seller in a city park in Sangerhausen, Germany, several hundred miles from Berlin.
He returned home after the war and worked for his father's North Charles Street furniture and bedding business before venturing into homebuilding and other construction. He built much of the Lake Falls neighborhood at Falls Road and Lake Avenue, and a group of homes on Charlesway near Ruxton.
He remained president of Charles Engineering, located in the 2200 block of Huntington Ave., until his death
"He was such a hard-working person. He worked harder than anyone he employed," said Stephen D. Skeen, vice president of the company. "He was hands-on, too. It would be 100 degrees out and he'd be on the backhoe. And he would always have his tie on. You'll never hear anyone say anything bad against him.
"He preferred being out there working with the guys to being in the office. And he did both, willingly."
Mr. Lears also built the physical plant at Loyola College and an automobile care complex on North Howard Street. He made a specialty of constructing gasoline stations.
Mr. Lears was an assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 35 at the Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore. He was a member of the National Wildlife Federation and enjoyed spending time on the Eastern Shore.
A memorial Mass will be offered at 10:30 a.m. today at Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues, where Mr. Lears was an active parishioner, served on committees and volunteered at its soup kitchen.
Surviving are his wife of 56 years, the former Mary Alma O'Connor; two sons, John Michael Lears of Towson and Patrick Andrew Lears of London; four daughters, Sister Louise Lears of the Sisters of Charity order in St. Louis, Margaret O'Connor Lears of Lutherville, Mary Kathleen Lears of Baltimore and Jane Francis Lears of Eldersburg; three sisters, Margaret Schaller of Portland, Ore., Claire Henkle of Sarasota, Fla., and Kathleen Jones of Cochranville, Pa.; and 10 grandchildren. Another son, James L. Lears Jr., died Nov. 7.