by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University
John E. Bonfadini
On any given day in America any one of us can become
a hero. This month we will remember the heroic firefighters and police who
gave their lives attempting to rescue trapped workers during the World
Trade Center terrorist attack. Society expects heroic deeds by individuals
in these two professions and members of the armed services. Occasionally
some lesser-known group does something that brings heroic status.
Such was the case with the nine coal miners trapped
some 240 feet below the earthís surface near Shanksville, Pa. My
brother-in-law, Mike Kosko, visiting from Hawaii, spent a day at the mine
and at the temporary memorial for United Flight 93, which crashed on Sept.
11 in a field about 10 miles from Shanksville. He and cousin Donna snapped
photos and picked up souvenirs. A recurring comment made by many of the
visitors was, ďWhat is the chance of two things of this kind happening
in such a short time out in the middle of nowhere?Ē Those of us who have
families in or who were born around coal-mining districts in Pennsylvania,
Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois and other mining states fully understand the
constant cloud of fear that lingers while loved ones work far below in
mines. The national joy we felt when the last of the nine miners was
raised from that hole in the ground says something about the greatness of
Cokeburg Centennial Celebration
Even with the recent recognition, Iím concerned
that as a society we donít respect the individuals who work in these
types of occupations. We need to do more in the education field to
recognize these workersí efforts and their contributions to our
nationís greatness. I recently returned from Cokeburg, Pa., my wifeís
hometown. The citizens of this community had a week-long centennial
celebration. My wifeís uncle, Andy Kosko, was there to view the
festivities and celebrate his 95th birthday. During a conversation while
sitting around the kitchen table, he told me of a near-death experience
when he was crushed while attempting to unload a coal car. He hadnít
reached his 18th birthday when the accident happened. His tragic story was
followed by another told to me by Leon Pagac, a former Washington Redskins
player from the early 1960s. I met Leon on the putting green of Nemacolin
Country Club and we began to discuss Cokeburg. Thatís when he informed
me that his dad was killed in a mine accident when he was a young man.
Almost every coal-mining family has some story of a loved one seriously
injured or killed while working in the mines. The coal miner, like
firefighters and police, accepts danger as part of the job.
Dad Was a Coal Miner
My dad never wanted me to follow in his footsteps. He
said, ďYou need to get an education so you donít have to work in the
mines.Ē His first job after arriving in this country was working in the
coal mines of southern Illinois. He later moved to western Pennsylvania
and continued his work in the mine fields. I remember him telling stories
about hand-digging coal at the Gibson mine outside my hometown of
Bentleyville, Pa. We would also go to the slate dump and pick burlap bags
of coal for the home furnace. I shoveled many a ton into the coal bin
using a number-4 shovel. Iíve always believed the shoveling developed
the power for my present golf swing. During my school years, the boys in
Mr. Rylandís eighth-grade class made a yearly field trip to the Gibson
mine where my dad worked. I can still remember that mine tour and seeing
the underground lake that was separated from the main shaft by a small
wall. After the mine field trip, I realized the danger that was involved
in working underground and had little trouble following my dadís advice
to get an education.
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Dad was told to leave the mine in his early 50s to
protect his health. He ignored the warning and continued to work at Bethel
Coal Company Mine 60 until retirement at the age of 65. Several months
after retiring, the doctors discovered lung cancer brought on by his
battle with black lung disease. The operation to remove the cancer was
unsuccessful and he quickly succumbed to the disease. Mom was left to
struggle with no pension or other form of income. Miners of that era
didnít have 401ks to worry about and there were no black lung benefits.
Dadís total assets after four decades of coal mining amounted to less
than $3,000. It didnít provide the funeral he deserved. These brave men
certainly were under-compensated for their efforts. Today Iíd like to
thank all who helped pass legislation to compensate mining families whose
fathers developed black lung disease. Several years after his death, mom
received a small amount of money from the black lung program that helped
her live in dignity to the age of 94.
Educating Our Kids
In the early 1960s I sold the World Book
Encyclopedia. The two main demonstration topics were on birds and coal.
Coal was referred to as ďblack goldĒ and most kids knew its importance
in our economy. The steel mills were flourishing in those years and trains
loaded with coal cars rumbled over the tracks that ran through most small
towns. Coal still plays a significant role in our economy, but most kids
will have little if any knowledge about its uses or production history.
Somehow its value and the importance of the men who mine it have gotten
lost in this technological world. I can remember bringing two pieces of
coal into a classroom and asking my students to identify the objects. Only
a few students knew they were pieces of coal. Iíd hoped that someone
would have known they were pieces of bituminous and anthracite coal, but
no one did. Knowledge of this kind is far more important than many of the
topics emphasized on our present competency tests.
The cooperatives of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware
own a coal-fired plant in Clover, Va., which provides a significant
percentage of the electrical power used by their members. Other energy
suppliers in the region also supply large amounts of energy generated
using coal as a fuel. Over 5,000 Virginia miners and other employees are
involved in the production of coal used in generation of electrical
energy. Electrical-energy production is the number-one use of coal.
Iíve written past articles stating that I believe
we are developing a ďsnobbish societyĒ that looks down on people who
do work with their hands. We need to be constantly reminded of the great
contributions made by all workers. Iím sure the miners from the
Shanksville area were thankful to be recognized this July, but we need to
remember their efforts throughout the year. Every time you turn on a light
switch, think of the miners who are risking their lives so we can have a
better life. Iím glad all of them didnít follow my dadís advice and
I want to personally thank them for making my life a lot easier.
In our January issue we asked our readers to
nominate their best teachers for our teacher honor roll, and the
mail came pouring in! We will publish a few each month until we
have acknowledged all of our fine educators.
Juanita Lacks Broughman
Teacherís Name: Nancy
Tate Castaldo School System:
Primary Subject: 7th Grade
was a teacher that made me and all her students
feel they were important. She gave her all and
helped make me what I am today.
Teacherís Name: Gary
DiVecchia School System:
Prince William County
Primary Subject: 6th and 7th Grades
DiVecchia made a difference in my life when he
wrote a report card comment that inspired me to
realize a life-long dream. I thank him for his
outstanding teaching and caring.
Teacherís Name: Mr.
Sarsfield School System:
Prince William County
Primary Subject: Latin
life was a testimony, and an inspiration and
challenge for me.