James Harold Shepherd Sr. and his brothers started Shepherd Construction, which built hundreds of miles of roads and highways in Georgia and the Southeast. After a family accident that injured his son, Shepherd was also a driving force behind the founding of Atlanta’s Shepherd Center in 1975. The center is a top-10 U.S. hospital for treatment and rehabilitation of people with spinal cord and brain injuries and other neuromuscular conditions. 
Photo: Shepherd family photo
Photo: Shepherd family photo

James H. Shepherd, 90: Road builder began world-renowned spine center

The complex, multi-hued life that Harold Shepherd packed into 90 years is practically unfathomable in today’s world.

Early on he wanted to race automobiles but was beaten, apparently convincingly, in a backroads sprint by the Atlanta bootlegger “Legs Law” (presumably not his Christian name) and Shepherd turned instead to the family’s construction business.

He began in construction in an era when highways were laid by mule-drawn carts. He was all of 14 when his father Clyde Shepherd told him to drive to Tallulah, La., to help build a levee. Then he laid a pistol on a nearby chair and told Harold, “Better take that just in case.”

Eventually Harold and two of his brothers started what became the Shepherd Construction Co. on Briarcliff Road, where it remains to this day. In 2004, around the time Harold retired, or at least semi-retired, the company had contracts of about $90 million annually. But the brothers were occasionally ensnared by controversy, including federal bid-rigging charges in 1982.

The late Decatur banker Clark Harrison, a paraplegic since World War II, helped Harold and his wife Alana Shepherd create what Shepherd is best known for today: the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation center known worldwide for treatment of brain and spinal cord injuries. It began with six beds at West Paces Ferry Hospital.

James Harold Shepherd died Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, after complications from kidney and lung issues. He had remained active until about August, and even attended the last-ever Boys High reunion last spring. A memorial service is scheduled Dec. 13 at 2:30 p.m. at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

He was born April 15, 1928, the youngest of six children and a fourth-generation Atlantan. On Tuesday afternoon Alana recalled that for his entire life Harold submitted his tax returns on April 16 because, “that way they’ll never get me on my birthday.”

His father Clyde prospered during World War II building military airfields, but went broke in peacetime. He also had a 60-acre dairy farm on Lavista Road where Harold and his siblings grew up.

Harold was only a few years out of high school when they opened Shepherd Construction. Over decades they built thousands of miles of interstate highways and city streets. At, one time the Shepherds managed 15 asphalt plants across Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. According to the family, Harold held a patent on the rumble roller, which marks the pavement edge on roads, and he helped develop two terminals that store liquid asphalt.

But in May 1982, Shepherd Construction pleaded guilty and paid $3 million in state and federal fines on federal bid-rigging charges. Harold and his brother Dan served 90-day sentences in a former Cobb County motel that housed white-collar prisoners. Both were allowed to leave and work during the day and return in the evening.

The company was soon back in business, bidding on projects such as a long-proposed Presidential Parkway that would have linked Ponce de Leon Avenue with Interstate 75 but wiped out neighborhoods. That project was fought hard by a large collective of grass-roots groups and ultimately was scrapped.

From left, Harold Shepherd, his son James, whose injury helped spark the founding of the Shepherd Center, and Alana Shepherd outside the center.
Photo: Shepherd family photo

Harold Shepherd’s enduring legacy is the Shepherd Center, born out of near tragedy. In 1973 his son James H. Shepherd Jr. was severely injured while body surfing in Rio de Janeiro and was temporarily a quadriplegic. Spinal cord rehabilitation was in its infancy, and there was virtually no place in Atlanta to treat James. He was moved to Craig Hospital in Denver where nine months later he walked out with braces and a crutch.

Almost immediately, in the fall of 1974, Harold and Alana, Harrison and the orthopedic specialist David F. Apple began planning a local treatment facility for spinal injuries. In August 1975 they received their first patient. Through Harold’s friendship with developer Scott Hudgens, who owned five acres on Peachtree Road, the Shepherds acquired the property where the center remain to this day.

Patients now come from all over the country for treatment for spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders. The Shepherd Center has 152 beds, treats 1,000 inpatients, about 600 day-program patients and more than 7,000 outpatients on an annual basis. In it’s history it has treated more than 30,000 patients.

As Harold gradually retired from the construction business, he began spending every day at the Shepherd Center.

“He knew all the patients, loved being around them and spent every day greeting them,” Apple said. “He also checked up on us doctors and made sure we were doing things right.

“Because of his many friends in business,” he added, “he could always raise money and we never had a down day on the business side. I would say his personality was a lot like a surgeon. He was always a straight-shooter, you always knew where he stood. Whatever needed to be done he’d do it and then move on to the next job.”

Last July Harold was still in good health when a section of Peachtree Road, from Peachtree Battle Avenue to Brookwood Station was designated the J. Harold Shepherd Parkway.

He is survived by his wife Alana Smith Shepherd, sons James H. Shepherd Jr. and Thomas C. Shepherd, three grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Read and sign the online guestbook for J. Harold Shepherd Sr.

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