Families who've lost loved ones in the coal mines gathered Sunday in front of the Harlan County Courthouse to pay tribute to the miners' legacy. Beneath the cool shade of the tents that were erected for the memorial service, those gathered clutched fans as well as red and white carnations that were handed out to all who came to remember.
For Pauline Merrill, she can never forget. Merrill lost her son, Gary Dale, in 1998 in a rockfall at Lone Mountain Processing.
"It's every day," she said, letting the tears freely flow. "I see things that remind me of him every day. Programs like this are special, and it means a lot to have the opportunity to come together and remember, but for the families who have lost loved ones in the coal mines, it stays with you - day in and day out. Only coal miners' families know what it's like on a day-to-day basis - how you worried when they were at work and how you grieved when they didn't make it home."
That's the comfort that was taken in Sunday's courthouse memorial service, and that's why its planner, Betty Widner, decided to organize the special event. Widner lost her husband, Frank, 27 years ago when he was electrocuted at Eastover Mine in Brookside. She was there handing out carnations, as well as hugs, and gently patting the hands of the survivors who filled the tents.
"This is something I wanted to do for the longest time," she said, "and this year I just got up enough nerve to do it. I started contacting people like our local dignitaries."
And they came.
State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, State Rep. Rick Nelson and Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop were part of Sunday's gathering. They each made special speeches in between the inspirational music that was shared for several hours by local musicians such as the Rev. Gary Grubbs of Little Creek Pentecostal Church.
Nelson proudly displayed a magnified copy of a 1950 Black Star Mining Company employee statement that belonged to his father. Nelson said when his father had to quit mining because of an injury he sustained in 1959, his mother didn't hesitate to go to work at a grocery store in Insul.
"It's good to remember our coal miners," Nelson said. "But we can't forget about the coal miners' wives and what all they had to sacrifice as well."
Nelson said he was pleased to hear about Sunday's coal miners' memorial service, adding he also wanted it to provide the opportunity for the younger generation to realize that mining is an honorable way of making a living.
"When we talk about our grandfathers, our fathers and our uncles, and what all they did, that's a lesson in honesty and hard work," Nelson said.
Grieshop promoted the importance of the coal industry during his address to Sunday's gathering, but at the same time stressed the fact that it was by the sweat of the coal miners' brow that made the industry flourish in southeastern Kentucky.
"Kentucky, as well as the entire nation, relies on coal for supplying our families' needs, driving our economic engine and protecting our country," Grieshop said. "But in that process, there have been families who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and we need to honor that."
One of the ways Harlan County honors its fallen coal miners is listing the 1,288 names on a large slab of marble rising from the ground near the courthouse. Grieshop said the memorial doesn't include the names of Harlan County coal miners who were killed in other counties. He said a way to eulogize their memory was being presently explored.
"A day like today has been very special to me," said Michelle Pace, who lost her father, Richard Boggs, in a 1985 rockfall at Manalapan.
"I was Daddy's little girl, and although it's been several years since I lost him, I'm still Daddy's little girl today. He, like most coal miners, loved what they did and simply provided for their families. He made a living for his family, and he was a provider. It's just that when you make a living by going into the mines, there's a chance you might not come back out."