Food For Thought

Coal Miners Can Be Heroes, Too

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
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 our country.

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.

What’s Your View?

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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.

Teacher Honor Roll

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.

Nominator: Juanita Lacks Broughman
Teacherís Name:
Nancy Tate Castaldo
School System: Charlotte County
Primary Subject: 7th Grade

She 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.


Nominator: Doreen Peay
Teacherís Name:
Gary DiVecchia
School System: Prince William County
Primary Subject: 6th and 7th Grades

Mr. 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.


Nominator: Brian Myhre
Teacherís Name:
Mr. Sarsfield
School System: Prince William County
Primary Subject: Latin

His life was a testimony, and an inspiration and challenge for me.



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