“There was a buggy man on another shift and I’d come in and I’d take chalk and I’d write ‘Safety First’ on the canopy. I’d come back the next day, and the guy had erased it and put, ‘Jesus Saves.’ I’d come back and I’d erase it and put, Safety First.’ Both were good, just safety was very important to me.”
Roger Owensby, Teacher, Mining Engineering Technology Program, Bluefield State College; Brushfork, West Virginia:
“I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and then I was raised in Bishop, West Virginia, a coal camp. Then, we moved to Bluefield, Virginia where I lived [during my] high school years.
Both sides of the family are from Knoxville. I was just a wee baby, maybe a year old when I moved away from Knoxville. My grandfather was a coal miner up here, and my dad moved up here to get a job in the coalmines. My grandfather lived just down the street from us, and he was a mine foreman in Bishop for many years. He retired and moved back to Knoxville.
My dad worked in the coalmines for many, many years and then he retired. I can remember coming home from high school, I was in the tenth or eleventh grade, and I’d come in the house and he was lying on the couch with a bandage around his head. A piece of rock had fallen out and it hit him and knocked him out from under the rock, but then it landed on another man and killed him.
Growing up in the mountains was good. We played in the woods and played on the creek bank. We didn’t know any different. It was great. We actually went up in the woods one time, it was an old logging road, and we put up hurdles so we could run and jump over hurdles and we did pole vaulting and all that kind of stuff in the woods. I played football in high school, and I wrestled. I liked baseball, but Graham High School didn’t have a baseball team so I couldn’t play baseball. I played split end and I also played defensive half back. I really, I wasn’t that interested in offense. I liked to play on defense and tackle. I was just out there to hit somebody. I had a mean streak in me. I’ve tamed down a lot.
My grandfather always planted a garden. My dad didn’t plant a garden and I’ve planted a few out here but I don’t get enough sunshine. So now I plant out at my daughter’s house. I like to put out tomato plants and I like to put out cucumbers. Just stuff for a salad. It’s not usually a big garden.
I can remember going out with my dad and going up in the woods and cutting a Christmas tree down and bringing it back to the house. It’d be way too big, and we’d have to trim it down some and put it in. Then we’d all decorate it together. We had those lights that had the bubbles in them. They heated up and then bubbles came up. I always liked those. We always had those.
For years, and years, and years all the brothers and sisters would gather at my mom’s house and we’d have Christmas dinner. My mom was always in charge of cooking. She’s gotten up in age so now she can’t do it anymore. I remember the turkey and dressing was good. We had ham. Our thing at home was always to have gravy and biscuits and pork chops on Sunday. That’s what dad liked.
We opened presents on Christmas morning. Some people liked to open them Christmas Eve, but we never did. There was always some conflict there if somebody wanted to open them in the evening on Christmas Eve. I got a train set one time that had a train that went this way and cars that raced this way that was nice. I can remember as a young boy at Christmas, we didn’t have a lot of money so we could all pick one gift and that was it. The big deal was to go to Bluefield and shop. I can remember being in Bluefield in the ‘50’s and the streets were just packed with people. It was kind of an amazing thing to see.
All of my brothers and sisters live in this area, but one. I’ve got a sister that lives in Atlanta. My other sister lives here and then my brother lives here.
I can remember at about age ten I went to the bus stop to go to school and the bus driver came by and he stopped and opened the doors and he said everybody go home there’s been a disaster at the mines. That just stuck in mind forever. I go home and I can hear a discussion of the adults and they were trying to decide who was in the mines in our family. It blew up. My grandfather was on dayshift and my dad was on evening shift and my uncle was on third shift. But we didn’t know what time it blew up. We later found out my uncle was killed. That was the Bishop mine explosion in February of 1957.
My dad and grandfather were on the mine rescue team that went in to recover the bodies. My dad told me that he had to bring out my uncle. He weighed close to 300 pounds and all he found was the trunk of his body, and they just brought the trunk out. They’ve seen things that are just hard to imagine. For that reason, my dad would change jobs every two or three years. If he got a feeling that something was going to happen or they didn’t rock dust the mines and that kind of stuff like they should, he would just quit and go somewhere else. Back then that was easy to do. If you were an experienced miner, you could quit and find another job the next day.
I just read the story on the Scotia mine not long ago. I can remember seeing the pictures on TV where the cars where lined up along the road and all the women were gathered around standing waiting to find out.
I went to Bluefield College for a couple of years and then I graduated and we moved to Texas. I was a salesman for a hardware company in Austin, Texas. We stayed out there a couple two or three years. We had a couple of kids so, you know our parents were here, so I decided to move back and brought them back. There are good people in Texas. I like Texas. I liked Austin, even though it was a pretty good-sized town. One day I was out selling. I was driving down the road and John Denver came on the radio singing, ‘Country roads take me home’ and so I said that’s a sign I need to move back. I came home and told [my wife] that we were moving back, and she was elated.
I missed the mountains and mostly, our family. We had two kids and they didn’t get to see their grandparents. I came back and went to work in the coalmines. Went to work at Keystone. I said well, if I’m going to work in the coalmines, I need to find out all I can about the coalmines so I enrolled at Bluefield State in the mining engineering technology program and studied mining at the same time I was working in the mines. After four or five years, I had an opportunity to start teaching in the mine foreman certification program at Bluefield State, so I started teaching coal miners to make their papers to be mine foremen.
Well, you know, working in the mines was a job. I enjoyed working on the pillar sections. To me, it was exciting to go in there and to pull the pillars and see the falls and all that stuff. It was probably the most dangerous job in the mines. We did it all. We set timbers and we roof bolted and I ran a shuttle car, helped on a miner…just did all the jobs on pillar sections.
I don’t remember who the miner was, but [I was working] along the pillar line before you get into the gob, and I saw this guy on the other side of the curtain laying up on a big rock sleeping, in the gob. I kind of shook him and said, ‘buddy, this is not the place to be sleeping. You need to get out of the gob.’ I just couldn’t imagine anybody going into the gob hiding and sleeping. [The gob] is the area where you’ve removed the pillars and then you let the top fall in. It’s just a big mass of rock that’s fallen down to the ground; very dangerous area to be in.
One time, a piece of rock flew back from the miner and hit me in the shin and knocked my leg out from under me and that hurt a little bit. One time I pinched my finger, pinched my fingernail where this back part popped out. I was bossing at the time, and I said call me a ride I’m hurt. They said you can’t go out you’re the boss. I said I’m leaving here. So I went to the doctor and he just pulled the rest of the nail out. I was never seriously hurt. I had some close calls. That was painful.
Mining has changed in a lot of ways, and it hasn’t changed in a lot of ways. I was really shocked a couple two or three years ago. I was doing some consulting work up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia and I go in the mines and I get in there and the equipment is much better; a lot more reliability and that kind of stuff. We got in there and they had water coming out of the top. The ribs were rolling off and it was really, really bad conditions. I’m thinking this is not that much different than what we used to be in. Lots of water, ribs rolling off, lots of rock, kettle bottoms falling in and that kind of stuff. That was all the same. But it’s mainly the equipment. It’s just much larger, more electronics.
I think the met coal market will come back. It depends on the demand in the world, and the biggest [user] is China. The demand in China is down. So met coal is way down but it’ll come back. Now, steam coal I don’t know if it will come back or not. Probably not, because of the cost against natural gas. We got so much natural gas now that I think they’ll price coal out of making electricity. Still, I just read the other day one third of all our electricity is made from coal, so it won’t completely go away for another twenty years.
The main thing I see is when I go down the road during the day is there are just no cars out running up and down the roads like there used to be. The people are staying home. They’re obviously not out spending money and buying things like they have in the past. I like to bowl, and you go to the bowling alley where we used to have twenty and twenty-five teams, now we’re down to nine or ten teams. All the leagues are down to about half or less than half of what they used to have. That’s kind of an indication of the economy. I can remember back when North Fork had good football teams, they had a playoff at the Mitchell Stadium. They were AA football, and the stadium was completely packed. This year we went to a football game, and not even half the stadium was full.
Tourism is a big thing now. You come out here on Thursday and Friday and there are all kinds of ATVs headed down Highway 52. So, tourism and that kind of stuff is good. The ATV park brings in people. They come flocking in here on weekends. I think it’s a good thing. It’s helping the economy. I don’t know that there is anything we can do to completely replace the coal industry.
Lewisburg is a town that really surprises me. They’re just growing leaps and bounds. It’s mom and pop stuff. Little stores and stuff and it’s really a thriving place. You look at other towns and you don’t understand why they’re not doing the same thing. I guess they’re just very progressive. They’ve got progressive thinking people that are willing to get out there and work. They just seem to act different than most West Virginians.
We have one grandkid, so we spoil her rotten if we can. We had two daughters and one of them, she’s not married and she’s so picky I don’t know if she will get married. The other one is married and she had one child. I think that’s all she’s going to have so we’re going to have one grandchild and that’s it. I like to take her out in the woods so she’ll get an appreciation of being out in the woods. I take her on walks. We talk and I’ve always talked to her just like she’s an adult. So we go on walks and we talk and I listen to her and just see what she’s thinking and all that kind of stuff. She’s pretty interesting. I’ve taken her bowling and that kind of stuff.
I took my daughters fishing. I never could fish because they wouldn’t touch the worms. So all I did was stand there and bait the hook. Then they’d throw it out there.
I guess at this point, I’d like to be remembered as a good teacher. I’ve taught at Bluefield State for 39 years, so I’ve had lots and lots of students over the years. I always tried to teach the way I’d like to be taught and treat students the way I’d like to be treated. I have no clue how many students I’ve taught in 39 years. I know I have to remember about 100 different names each year, so 2000, 4000, 5000? I don’t know.
I was teaching a tech math class and this little girl came up and she says, ‘Mr. Owensby, do you think I can do this?’ I went, ‘well, I don’t know you and I haven’t seen your work, so all you can do is do your best and see what happens.’ We got started and we went through the semester and she just soaked it up like nothing. At the end, she got an A in the class. She was very capable, but she didn’t have any self-confidence. Many years later, I was at the bowling alley, this happens a lot, but I was at the bowling alley and some woman came up to me and said do you remember such and such student. I said oh yeah I had her in class. She was a good student. She says well she really appreciates what you did for her because she never had any confidence in her math skills and I encouraged her in math. That’s where you get your satisfaction. You know you get people that graduate and they go out and they become vice presidents of operations and all that kind of stuff and become very successful.
You can put emphasis on production, but you have to have just as much emphasis on safety. When I went in the mines, losing my little finger wasn’t worth a pound of coal. I like to try to work safe. There was a buggy man on another shift and I’d come in and I’d take chalk and I’d write ‘Safety First’ on the canopy. I’d come back the next day, and the guy had erased it and put, ‘Jesus Saves.’ I’d come back and I’d erase it and put, Safety First.’ Both were good, just safety was very important to me.”