John Benjamin “J.B.” Coxwell was one of eight children of a sharecropper whose family was too poor to buy him the toy trucks he loved. So he made his own out of Prince Albert tobacco cans and played with them in the dirt underneath his house.

 

In his adult years, that little boy came to own a fleet of 300 trucks and one of the most successful road construction, earth moving and disaster debris collection companies in the Southeast.

Mr. Coxwell died at his 2,000-acre farm on Jacksonville’s Westside Monday night after a long illness. He was 78.

“His life story is such a classic rags-to-riches tale,” said John Delaney, former Jacksonville mayor and president of the University of North Florida. “He grew up about as poor as you could be. It’s proof that you don’t need a lot of money to get to the top. Hard work is how he got to be where he was, and he was as smart as they come.”

Friends described him as forthright, humorous, creative, well-respected and a risk taker who gave liberally to others, though he never sought credit.

Mr. Coxwell was born in the tiny rural town of Wing, Ala. He had an affinity for trucks since he was a toddler and knew he wanted a career revolving around them, said Mike Tolbert, a friend of 25 years who recently completed a book about him, titled “Faith, Family and Work.”

Mr. Coxwell quit school in the ninth grade, bought a bus ticket for $2 and moved to Clearwater to join an older brother. At 15, he got a job with a construction crew building a golf course. His job was to install a fence around the trees so that the bulldozer could pull them out of the swamp, Tolbert said.

Still only 15, he eventually replaced the man driving the bulldozer. He gained valuable experience and after working for a couple of construction companies was hired by Duval Engineering and moved to Jacksonville in 1960. Mr. Coxwell worked for the company until 1980 when it liquidated as Houdaille Industries. During that time, he traveled across the Southeast and became the first non-college graduate to become a supervisor and then a superintendent, Tolbert said.

When Houdaille went out of business, he was the superintendent chosen to close down the company. That coincided with a promise that he made to his oldest daughter that he would stop traveling when she reached middle school, Tolbert said.

So he started his own company, River City Grading and Paving, clearing lots for developers. He had two employees and an old dump truck. D.W. Hutson, who was building houses across Jacksonville and particularly in Mandarin, helped Mr. Coxwell build his small company into a large operation, Tolbert said.

By that time he changed its name to Coxwell Contracting Inc. and was Ring Power’s largest buyer of heavy equipment, Tolbert said.

Mr. Coxwell’s company did a lot of roadwork for the state and won bids on a number of Better Jacksonville Plan projects, such as the widening of Hood, St. Augustine and Branan Field-Chaffee roads, as well as road construction at Cecil Commerce Center.

“He was known as one of the best earth movers in the state of Florida,” said Sam Mousa, former executive vice president of J.B. Coxwell and the city’s chief administrative officer.

He had an aversion to taking on debt because he almost went under during a recession decades ago, but was a risk taker who was willing to gamble, Delaney said.

In the mid-2000s, for example, he opened a disaster recovery division in which he cleaned up debris after hurricanes, ice storms or tornadoes in various states. He handled that end of the business while turning over construction end of the company to his son, David Coxwell, Mousa said. He was still called in for consultation.

Most of his risks were well rewarded, Mousa said.

“When he put his name to something, he was going to get it done,” he said. “The biggest mistake you could make with J.B. Coxwell was to tell him he couldn’t do something.”

Two years ago, he decided he wanted to build a construction debris landfill near his Otis Road property. The City Council voted unanimously to approve the project.

Delaney said he was nicknamed “King of the Westside” while Mousa described him as “a giant of a man who had the heart of a teddy bear.”

There was another side to Mr. Coxwell, said those who knew him.

“Something that’s important to empathize about J.B. is that he’s one of those people that are generous beyond belief,” Tolbert said.

He built 30 to 40 youth baseball fields across Duval County at no cost and never wanted recognition for it, Tolbert said. He was one of the founders and supporters of Seamark Ranch, a Christian home for abused or neglected children.

He contributed $30,000 to the Memorial Park Association.

He also was a big UNF donor whose name was put on the school’s amphitheater and who set up a scholarship in Mousa’s name, Delaney said.

“You could fill a book with the names of his friends,” Delaney said.

In 2004 he served as chairman of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association. Mr. Coxwell also was an influential supporter and money-raiser for the Republican Party who was active in campaigning.

He liked to get away with family to his ranch called Thousand Oaks in Brooker which was loaded with deer, wildlife, turkeys and several lakes. “That was his heaven on earth,” Tolbert said.

Viewing will be 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Evangel Temple Assembly of God, 5755 Ramona Blvd., Jacksonville. The funeral will be at 1 p.m. Friday at Evangel. Burial will be in Riverside Memorial Park.

In addition to his son David, survivors include his wife Fran Coxwell, daughters Shelley Williford and Johnna Vause, all of Jacksonville, and nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128