Paul Kuczko

Paul Kuczko, Retired, Born and raised in Norton, Virginia. Now lives in Lee County, Virginia: 

“I’ve loved it here. I’ve had opportunities to leave numerous times, but the mountains just always felt like home. I look at it like a quilt tucking me in at night, them mountains are. I just always liked it here and wanted to stay here. Glad I did. 

I’ve retired now and just been helping my 79 year old neighbor farm his thousand acres of land. I was Director of the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development program. Worked with a lot of kids and foster children and abused children and taught entrepreneurship programs. Started a record company and just whatever we could figure out to try to get the kids off the couch and doing something. 

Went to East Tennessee State in Johnson City, Tennessee. Immediately came back and needed a job, so I wrote the grant and started the office on youth.

It was interesting. We started back in 1980. Wise County, Virginia had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state, one of the highest infant death rates in the world and by working with all the agencies and individuals and concerned citizens, slowly over the years we were able to work on the high end statistics and get infant death rates down.

Still it’s too high for the nation, but it’s average with the nation. We brought the school dropout rate down to one of the lowest in the state, and teen pregnancies to one of the lowest levels. We had a lot of accomplishments that we can look back on and say things did work out and did get better for the young folks. 

We’ve had a bunch of success stories. We tracked these kids from when we worked with them, until six years later. Some of them are 22, 23, 24 (years old) and it’s called, Graduated Sanctions. 

The idea there is if a young person messes up, you need to deal with it quick. Waiting six months for court is not the answer. So we had a program where we could take a [driver’s] license away, and then if they started doing better, then we could give it back to them. Then if they did better we could give them $100 a week. You know, some kind of reward. And so it’s kind of like steps, if you think of it that way. 

You mess up, you go back down to some punishments, but if you do good, then you get rewarded and you go back up the steps to the second floor. And by tracking that, we hit 96% of all the people we worked with did not get in trouble again for the next six years. That’s a very high success rate. Most of the time, your recidivism rate’s any where from 25 to 50%. But it shows that by doing it fast, and not having so many kids that you can’t keep up with them, that it works. 

Some of them actually went to community college and nobody in their family had ever gone to college --- so a lot of successes. I also found out, believe it or not, that the best punishment seemed to be picking up trash! If we made them go out and pick up trash and made them wear the road reflecting outfit and all, something about their peers seeing them, they did not want to do it again. If we put them in detention or locked them up that didn’t seem to bother them near as bad as having them out picking up trash. I think they think everybody they know’s driving by looking at them and knows it’s them! But it sure does seem to be a good punishment not to have them repeat again, whatever their problems were.

Some of the worst ones [stories/cases] were, I remember, we had a girl who was 13-years-old, she’d been sexually molested and we could not get a doctor to examine her. The law requires if you bring a child to a doctor, then they report it, but there’s no law that says they have to help you. 

We needed the tests done to prove the rape, if you will, and then to make the report. The doctors said they hated doing it and actually the little girl was on the ER table for three hours while the hospital administrators and lawyers argued over whether they needed to do it or not. We took her to Bristol, Tennessee and finally found a doctor willing to do the test only if we swore to him he wouldn’t have to come to court. 

That got us started on trying to figure out what the problem was, and we met with all of the medical community people. Basically, they said when they get involved they know it’s going to be a nightmare. They’re going to waste a whole day in court, not testify, have to come back three times and it just messed up their practice so bad they just didn’t want to get involved. 

Then, we went to the lawyers and the Virginia State Bar Association meeting and explained to them what was going on and they said ‘well, we can work something out.’ We agreed that we would do depositions with the doctors, that way they didn’t have to waste all that time for court. And then of course, when court came, if they had to be there, they wouldn’t be called until an hour before they were needed and they would be used as soon as they got there as a witness, and then let go back to work. And we worked that out and ended up having four doctors that volunteered half a day every week to work with these kids. 

At that time, we just had a terrible problem with losing sexual abuse cases because there were no witnesses, no evidence, and no doctors’ testimony. And after that, we got one of the first sexual abuse trauma teams in Virginia, probably on the East Coast, organized and working with the kids. Basically, once you have the evidence you get a confession, and then with the confession you don’t have to have [to go to] court, so you save everybody’s time. So, that was a great success story. 

[On what makes Appalachian culture special] I think it goes back to that diversity, back in the beginning. If you go back and look at some of the cemeteries, like over at Benham, Kentucky, there’s 22 different nationalities you could name right off the bat. People talked like New York was a melting pot but it really wasn’t. The different nationalities stayed in their little part of town but here in the coal camps it really was a melting pot. Even if the coal camps were segregated a little bit those miners still had to work with each other. And they couldn’t communicate because of the different languages but they had to learn how to stay alive.

Music was a big part of that. I’m convinced that’s where this, what’s classified as a mountain sound, really came from. The Czechoslovakians brought the mandolin in here, that wasn’t a mountain instrument. Blacks brought the banjo and they were brought in to help break the union up. They didn’t know that, but that’s what was going on. And so that melting pot—they couldn’t communicate but they could play music and they would get together after work and on weekends and play baseball and play music. I think that’s what made the culture here still so unique. 

There’s probably not another spot in the country where that many different immigrants came together that couldn’t talk to each other, but made a living and made it work. You can go back to John L. Lewis, and he actually published a union newsletter in 20 languages so that the different nationalities could read and keep up with what the union was doing. 

I think John Fox, Jr. and The Trail of Lonesome Pine perpetuated, actually started, a lot of those myths about barefoot and pregnant, dumb and don’t bathe and all that. That’s the first million selling short story novel in American history. It was also the first movie made in Technicolor with Henry Fonda and all those big stars. I think just because so many people read it as a short story, they believed it, and it stuck. 

Actually [hillbilly was first used as a] commercial term in music. The Stoneman Family was in New York being recorded [about] 15 years before the Carter family was ever heard of. But they didn’t have a name so the record company was like, ‘we need a name to put on the record.’ [The Stoneman’s] said, ‘well I guess we’re just a buncha hillbillies’. 

So The Hillbillies were one of the first big time recording bands that came out [of] Frieze, Virginia. And that was the first time [the word hillbilly] was commercially used. 

Several years ago, a bunch of us who love old timey and mountain music, started looking around, and we just noticed that there wasn’t a lot of young people playing old timey music; especially fiddles. We were looking around and we only knew of about two young people playing the fiddle. That kind of helped start the Mountain Music School that they’ve had now for 20 something years. Same as Cowan Creek over in Kentucky. 

We also have the program right after school for elementary school kids twice a week and they can come in and play guitar, banjo and fiddle. Now you see all these little kids getting off the bus carrying their instruments and that’s pretty great. And there’s more young bands playing old timey than I would have ever dreamed would happen. Music’s important in people’s lives I think. 

The schools’ cutbacks and too much [importance] put on the testing and not enough on talent and skills… that’s one thing I notice with working with delinquent kids. Some of them weren’t always the smartest, but they were some of the most talented people I’ve ever met for young people. They can fix anything or make anything or play anything. 

I’ve just always had it [love for music]. It’s funny because I have brothers and sisters and one brother that played the piano, but the rest of them probably never turned a radio on other than news. And I can remember hearing Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan singing ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and I said ‘now that’s something special.’ And I ran out and bought that album. I was nine years old and I’ve still got it and that was the first album I remember buying. To me, it’s like poetry and literature all in one, and it rhymes and has a good beat and you can tell a great story in three minutes. 

For Wise County’s sesquicentennial, we put together a coal mining book of pictures of all the coal camps. As I was doing it, I was like ‘man we’ve got to add a CD to this’ because there’s just so many great coal mining songs from the area, and about the area. As you start doing the research you find out there’s not just a few great coal mining songs but over 161 coal mining songs. 

We [spent] two years going through every coal song we could get ahold of, and get permission to use. We put together a two CD set, Music of Coal, two hours and twenty minutes of sad songs about growing up hard in the coal mines, and a 78-page liner notes. Luckily enough, that was nominated for three different Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album, Best Packaging and Best Liner Notes. We didn’t win any but by being nominated we helped to sell a whole lot. 

Then we used the money we made from that to start Lonesome Records and the idea there was to help the youngsters play and to be able to get their first cd done so that when they went to churches and town halls and community events and sang and everybody’s all, ‘oh that’s great, that’s great,’ people could give them ten bucks and give them a little bit of gas money by having a CD to sell. 

One of the first bands we did was Noah Wall and the Barefoot Movement; Noah Wall’s the lead singer, at the time they were in East Tennessee State. I’m happy to report they've made it. They're in Nashville now and they just played at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC a month or so ago, they're booked all the time and they did like you’d think they do. They hopped in a van after school and drove from Florida to New York up and down the east coast and played anywhere they could make a nickel or a dime. Slept on friends’ floors and all that until they finally now are getting to where they’re getting paid pretty good per gig, per show. So that’s been a good success. 

I tell ya the singing around here’s just amazing, and with no full time music programs in the schools to speak of, and very few places where you can go to take singing lessons or, more advanced piano or whatever. How talented some of these kids are just totally on their own. But it’s just amazing the talent I see; both singing-wise and picking-wise. 

Sometimes, especially when it’s a self talent like that, and especially being from the mountains, we don’t like to brag on ourselves a whole lot so somebody’s gotta get behind them and push them a bit and encourage them that they can do it and that they do have a good sound and they do need to share them god given talents with the world. 

I’ve said that before but I think I’m right this time (about coal not coming back). I realize, especially if you’ve got a mining job, you’re not going to be able to beat that. And for these folks, poor guys that are losing, it’s just tragic. 

On the other hand, when you write grants for 30 years, and you study statistics, you realize that if you have a coal truck running through your county, you're a distressed county. So much of the wealth is actually extracted to New York or Lexington or, in Virginia’s case, Philadelphia, where Penn Virginia owned all the mineral rights. 

And other than the mining jobs, which again aren’t as many as they used to be because the technology and the long wall miners, if you look at counties that aren’t mining counties, maybe agriculture, they don’t have 30% poverty and 60% of the kids on free lunch and on and on and on. It’s only counties that have coal trucks running through them. So from a big picture you’ve got to say coal is not really the economic stimulus that we think it is. 

If you go back to ’61 when Kennedy was President and the minimum wage was started, it was 60 cents. To have the same buying power today, that that 60 cents had, the minimum wage would have to be $18.75. So a lot of folks I know are making 20-dollars and hour and think they’re doing good. They’re really not having the buying power that their grandparents or parents did in the ‘ 60s. That’s something to think about. 

I remember back in the ‘70s I was taking slides of courthouse squares in the south. I was somewhere in Georgia, [and] there was this big statue of a boll weevil, and I thought ‘now that’s interesting.’ So I went over and read the marker and, in a nutshell, it said thank God for the boll weevil. Had it not come and kicked our ass for three years and destroyed the cotton, we’d all still be picking cotton. But because that happened, their economy had to diversify, and now they still have cotton of course, but they do other things and there are other jobs. That comes to mind whenever I think about Appalachia and its current coal crisis. 

Wise County’s educational level has not changed since the ‘50s. If you’re 25-years-old and above, half of the adults do not have a high school diploma. The ones that graduate now move away, so when the next census comes they’re not there to say ‘yeah, I got my high school diploma.’ The ones that have been here a long time were the ones keep checking the box and saying ‘nope, I didn’t do it.’ When you have less than 50% of your population with a high school diploma, then you’re trying to recruit in, compared to the Research Triangle with 80% college graduates, you’re going to lose every time. 

We got to make sure we can start getting kids out of school, hopefully get some of them to stay here, [and] that’s why I’m a big believer in local entrepreneurship. Kids can be job creators and not job takers. The sooner we realize that and help young people start businesses that we know we need around here, and make it a little easier and do some mentoring so we can help them with their needs legally or whatever, tax wise, government wise, I think we can see a big change with local folks, because they’re the one’s who’ll be here through thick and thin. 

And a lot of folks, like in Lee County, they’re coming back, they’re the ones that moved to Detroit in the ‘50s and ‘60s and even ‘70s. They’ve retired and they're coming back to either the old home place, or buying a piece of land near it. For one, the crime rate’s lower and it’s home and all that. A lot of them, they don’t have children, so it’s not helping the education system as far as numbers, so you can have more people moving in but your school population keeps declining. And that’s what we’ve noticed in Lee County. And that has to be older folks that have already raised their children coming in. 

I think the talent base here is just amazing and I think tourism can be a piece of the pie. It’s not going to solve all of our problems, but this place is special. I can remember going to a meeting 30, 40 years ago, Senator Bird of West Virginia was speaking, and he was saying what can make our tourism work in West Virginia is that we don’t have interstate highways and people want to get on the back roads and drive. And I think they pulled it off in West Virginia. Look at Pocahontas County, you look at all the rafting, last number I saw was 60 million dollars just off the white water rafting. That’s a pretty good chunk of change in any community. And then when, again, locals can make that money and keep it that’s even the best situation. 

I know the chamber in Wise County gets 11 calls a week for bed and breakfasts. There’s none in Wise County. So that’s [an] unmet need right there.

The history in these mountains is just amazing when you look at it. City of Norton built a wooden town hall. They really built it cause it would seat 5000 people and Billy Sunday, who at the time was the Billy Graham of the preachers, but was anti-union, so the coal companies brought him in to preach how you were going to hell if you joined a union. I’m serious. It’s in one of these books. 

It was a wooden structure, and it later burnt down, but besides building it for Billy Sunday to come tell about going to hell and the union, they showed movies there. And there were only two movie theatres in New York City at the time. So here’s little old Norton with a couple thousand people that they had a movie theatre when the city, big city with several million, only had two. And that’s always blown my mind. And then just the whole area, Middlesboro, Cumberland Gap, first golf course in America was built there. Nine hole golf course there in Middlesboro. And that’s because the British who came there to mine coal wanted to play golf. That golf course is still there, and I think it’s amazing. 

The one problem [with] education right now, and I think it’s why we’re losing in the United States, is that we’ve got too much focus on individual skills. The European model is experiential education. You work in groups of four and five, realizing that some people are better at math, science or English or whatever, but everybody shares their skills. Then you look at the problem and everybody talks about it, and you take different ideas on how to solve it and then you reflect on it after it’s over. 

When you do that, your brain remembers about 80% of that. In the American education system, even the smartest people remember about 3% of what’s thrown at them. That’s pretty bad. We know that the experiential education model they’re using in Europe works. And then we keep wondering why we’re 18th, 19th in geology and math and science and all that. Well, maybe we need to look at how we’re teaching, which is an old model based on an Agrarian society when everybody farmed. 

The book I’m working on right now is a history of Wise County’s one and two roomed schools. Wise County had 160 one and two roomed schools. Kids could literally walk from about anywhere and have an opportunity. And the curriculum, when you go back and look, they were teaching philosophy and geography and geometry and just all kinds of stuff I never dreamed we were teaching in one, two roomed schools. Wise had the first college set there, and you were required to have two years of Greek and Latin to graduate there. Well, I’ve gone back and looked, and I couldn’t find another college in the state, went through Ivy League schools and all that, [that] were requiring two years of both foreign languages to graduate. And that was mountain people teaching that and taking [those classes]. 

We don’t have the one central thing focusing us for change. And when we have had it, it was outsiders. Johnson and Kennedy wanted to help us. If you go back and read one of my favorite stories [about] when the miners went on strike in West Virginia, they were thrown out of the company housing and they were living in caves. Eleanor Roosevelt hopped in her car and drove by herself from Washington DC to, I think it was War, West Virginia, started bringing food to them and ended up getting the President and other philanthropists to donate money and build a model town for those folks to live in. Here’s the First Lady of the United States hopping in a car and driving by herself. Can you imagine that today? She took care of the poor miners in West Virginia. 

And I think some way to focus there [is on] the fact of the wealth that’s been taken out, not just coal. But I mean in timber, and coal, hell I’ll even say TVA takes the rivers in Virginia, Powell and Clint, and makes cheap electricity, which we don’t get any of. It’s below us that get the cheap juice. They’ve made so many mistakes now I don’t know that it’s cheap anymore but it used to be. When TVA first started, there weren’t even going to put a meter on your house, it was going to be so cheap you just pay $10 a month or whatever and that was it. Somehow, we don’t get it and I never had understood that. 

We’ve exported and used and let other people use everything we had and I think it’s time for the locals, the actual citizens, to take back over and be in charge; especially with methane. 

We’re the Saudi Arabia of methane. Let’s not do the same thing we did with coal and give it away and not do any value added. We should not let a drop of that stuff outta here if it’s not used here. There’s got to be good paying jobs, plants that need methane gas to make whatever they make. And we’ve got to start recruiting those types of energies to the area, and I think we can. 

I’m amazed that now we’ve got the highest poverty level ever and none of the politicians, Democrats or Republicans, are even talking about it. When I was growing up, every politician wanted to try to at least do something about the high poverty rate. Don’t even seem to bother the politicians today [that] 25% of the children are living in poverty and that just sets up all kinds of problems. It’s not to say some of them don’t succeed, but most of them don’t. 

And then we have all kinds of problems on down the road from that. Wise County in the ‘50s had the highest county population in the state of Virginia. And now, not so much. 

Maybe we need to be more selfish. Look at our future and our grandkids and say, ‘hey, what can we do to make sure this place is still here?’ And have some viable employment, because we got to have some jobs. I think if you look at mining as a whole, hell, hundred years ago they weren’t good jobs. [People] were dying left and right and they didn’t care, and they kicked the widow out of the home as soon as the miner got killed. They were 30 cents an hour [jobs], if you were lucky, dollar or two a day. 

And then, John L. Lewis came in and I remember growing up, I thought John L. Lewis and Roosevelt and Kennedy was part of the Holy Trinity because every home I went to, [those were] the three pictures on the fireplace mantle. You had Jesus in the middle, and John L. Lewis on the left and either Kennedy or Roosevelt on the right. And I always thought that was the Holy Trinity of the mountains. They were doing things to help people.”