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Helen dedicates memorial

By Amelia A. Pridemore, Register-Herald Reporter

Every day, coal miners march to work, providing both an income for their families — and energy fueling a nation.

These miners know the danger behind their work, yet they soldier onward. When they tell their families good-bye, they understand they may never come back.

Saturday afternoon, the Helen-based Winding Gulf Restoration Organization (WeGROw) dedicated a Coal Miner’s Memorial Park off W.Va. 16 in the small Raleigh County community. John Lewis, president of WeGROw, said the park, featuring a memorial to coal miners who either lived or worked in Helen, was a three-year citizen effort to both restore the community and see it thrive.

“This is the town where I was raised and I’ve lived my whole life,” he said. “We determined quickly that just because you’re 15 miles outside of Beckley that you shouldn’t have a lower standard of living than someone in Beckley.”

At its peak, Eastern Associated Coal operated four mines in the Helen area — Nos. 9, 10, 11 and 12, Lewis said. As many as 9,000 to 10,000 people worked in those mines with workers being brought in by train and bus. The site of the miner’s memorial park — which also includes a playground and picnic shelter — is on the site of the old company store. He could remember standing in the checkout line with his grandfather, the late Bill Lewis, and buying ice cream.

“I even remember what kind it was — one of those orange ’sicles with the cream inside,” he said.

Three years ago, the area where the park now stands was all swamp, Lewis said.

“Where the shelter is now, it was all frogs and tadpoles,” he said.

With the help of businesses and organizations who loaned funds, equipment or labor, the swamp was filled, Lewis said. In particular, Beckley Area Foundation provided grant funds, Bosley Rental loaned equipment, Dean’s Paving paved a basketball court for free and a local carpenter’s union provided work on the playground.

Saturday, children played and residents gathered in throngs in the area that was once a swamp. Lewis estimated the entire project cost, all donated funds, was around $30,000.

Helen resident Randolph Greer, a committee chairman, was proud to see the wall bearing the name of his father, the late Jake A. Greer. The elder Greer died in 1982.

“It’s moving to know he will be there,” he said. “It’s a form of immortality. In future years, people who read this will know he worked here. I suppose my memory will become everyone else’s memory.”

Greer wanted to remind citizens of the character of coal miners.

“First of all, they were courageous,” he said. “They were willing to sacrifice for their families. That’s why they did it. They were also patriotic, making sacrifices for their country as well.

“In World War II, coal was very important. A lot worked and were willing to go ahead and work extra, making a sacrifice that way as well. That shouldn’t be forgotten. That contributed to us winning World War II, making the whole nation stronger since then.

“Because of coal, West Virginia has power. This can make us all less dependent on foreign oil, on a global perspective.”

Rachel Booth, administrative assistant for the Coal Heritage Trail, said she was overcome with emotion after working with WeGROw for three years on the project, as she watched a line of citizens walk up a hillside to the miner’s memorial.

“I believe this will bring tourists to the area to see the names of family members on the wall, as well as encourage other communities on their own projects. I’m so proud of Helen and their community participation — to recognize the hard work that coal miners do every day.”

Booth noted the vast majority of West Virginia’s electricity is provided by coal.

“Every time you turn on your hot water, electricity, computer — you owe that to a coal miner,” she said. “I want everyone to know that.”

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Lewis — who noted both he and his father were named after the late labor organizer and United Mine Workers of America president John L. Lewis — said he now works as a mine safety director and mine rescue team member. He spent 52 hours working at the January 2006 Alma No. 1 mine fire in Logan County that killed two fellow miners.

That day, Lewis said he was in Boone County when he was called to the fire. Although rescue team members continually practice, he was scared to death.

“I had to stop myself,” he said. “I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ So, I said a prayer. I said, ‘Lord, if it’s my time to die, I put my life in your hands.’ Then a peace just came over me. I never gave it a second thought.”

Never, during the search for a lost miner, does a rescuer believe the miner is dead, Lewis said. The rescuer and team members try to go over all the intricate pathways in a mine, wondering where they would go if they were fighting to survive.

But after going to a hotel to sleep and being woken at 8 a.m., Lewis later had the feeling a recovery operation was under way.

“Boy, that’s the hardest thing to think about — having to go in and find a man and bring him out,” he said, sighing.

“...Non-union or union — it doesn’t matter. What you did for this country or what you do for this country today is what matters.”

From the June 30, 2007 Beckley Register-Herald.  Used by permission.