When Tom Gish, the longtime editor of The Mountain Eagle, was accused of being anti-coal, he would firmly disagree. “This newspaper is pro-coal,” he would say. “We just want it done right.”
When he said that, he had Harry LaViers Jr., in mind.
Four generations of the LaViers family — Henry, Harry, Harry Jr., and two of Harry Jr.’s sons — ran the South-East Coal Company for more than three-quarters of a century, from 1915 until 1994. They were eastern Kentucky coal men through and through, and proud of it.
In the era of company towns, they built one in Letcher County — Seco — that was well-planned, solidly constructed, and progressively managed. (Today the old Seco company store lives on as the home of Highland Winery.) Although Harry Jr. would caution that “there’s no such thing as a safe coal mine, anymore than there’s a safe highway,” South- East’s mines were long considered to be very safe places to work. The company’s concern for its employees extended to creating scholarships that enabled dozens of miners’ children to become the first in their family to attend college. Unlike many Kentucky coal companies that bitterly fought unionization, South-East found it possible — at least for several decades — to accommodate the United Mine Workers and to share the UMW’s commitment to ensuring that miners could earn decent wages and count on health care and a pension in retirement.
Harry Jr. — for simplicity we’ll just call him Harry from here on — was a fourth-generation coal man. His family roots were Celtic; his French surname can be traced to the ancient Celts who settled Brittany, on the coast of France. At some point they sailed across to Wales. Harry’s great-grandfather, James LaViers, immigrated from there with his wife and 16-monthold son in 1863, to mine anthracite coal in Pennsylvania during the first American coal boom, as mines fed the new railroads that hauled military supplies for the Union during the Civil War.
Harry’s grandfather, Henry LaViers, worked in coal mines in Ohio and West Virginia before investing his savings in a core drill and hauling it by boat to prospect for coal in the then-unpopulated wilds along the North Fork of the Kentucky River. What he found prompted him to return to Ohio to acquire an engineering degree. He then returned to eastern Kentucky and settled in Paintsville as the manager of the newly created North-East Coal Company, which rapidly became a major producer, leading to the creation of the South-East Coal Company in Letcher County in 1915. Henry then managed both companies until his retirement in 1933; he died in Paintsville in 1945.
Henry’s son Harry, born in 1900, took over the management of South-East Coal upon his father’s retirement. His son — Harry Jr. — was born in 1929, mined coal as a teenager, graduated from Culver Military Academy in 1947, then graduated from Princeton with an engineering degree in 1951 and returned to eastern Kentucky. Father and son then built South-East into one of the largest independent coal companies in the United States, operating several deep mines in Letcher and neighboring counties and a state-of-the-art preparation plant at Irvine in Estill County. Harry became president of South-East when his father retired in 1970.
Full disclosure: It’s not possible for the co-authors of this remembrance to write objectively about Harry LaViers Jr. When we think of a word to describe him, “generous” comes to mind. We experienced his generosity in different ways.
For Tom Bethell, a New England native visiting Letcher County for the first time in 1963, Harry suggested that someo ne who wanted to understand coal mining should spend some time underground, and hospitably guided him through South-East’s Polly Mine on the first of what would become several visits to that mine. Later, when Bethell moved to Letcher County, Harry loaned him the use of South-East’s beautiful cabin on Pine Mountain, and still later, when Bethell served as UMW research director, Harry took his phone calls from Washington and generously provided expertise on complex coal matters ranging from the impact of mechanization on employment to the prospects for clean-coal technologies. He was always thoughtful, always able to consider all aspects of a question — in short, a natural and gifted teacher.
For Ben Gish, Harry was both a long-term family friend and a shorter-term employer, roles that could have been in conflict but that Harry balanced skillfully. Ben’s grandfather — also named Ben — had risen from rank-andfile miner to become a South-East mine superintendent. That never stopped Harry from criticizing Ben’s editor father Tom when he read something in The Eagle that he disagreed with, but his criticisms were never personal. When Ben went off to college, he worked summers for South-East, mining Polly coal, and he remembers that he and four of his friends who also had summer jobs there were expected to work as hard as those who held a full-time job. To this day, a former South-East miner will sometimes stop in at The Eagle and tell disbelieving staffers how hard Ben once worked. Harry was a grant-no-favors employer, but he was also a mentor who encouraged Ben to stay in school and come back to Letcher County to earn a living.
We owe him.
When Harry died, on June 23 of this year, at age 86, The Eagle failed to note his passing, let alone pay tribute to our good friend.
Better late than never.
Harry could be blunt. He shared The Eagle’s early opposition to stripmining, but maintained that the newspaper’s stake in the outcome was somewhat academic — because, as he noted in a 1963 interview, “you don’t like the destruction, but we face the stripminers as competitors — and they are vicious competitors.”
He continued: “They have covered the countryside with silt, yes — but they have also driven the price of coal down. And to those of us who sell deep-mine coal, this is a disaster of the first magnitude. When you talk about coal, it’s all cents-per-ton. We’re marketing about a million tons of coal a year, and if you knock fifty cents off the price of coal, it costs us half a million dollars. People talk about stripmines’ higher productivity as a reason for being, but their productivity would be very low if they had to do a complete reclamation job. When we deep-mine a ton of coal, we pay all the costs of mining it. When the stripmines produce a ton of coal they leave much of the cost for society as a whole to pay. Naturally that makes them more competitive.”
You couldn’t ask for a more succinct summary of a problem that has continued to bedevil Appalachia and the nation for more than half a century.
As for the reasons why coal first began to lose ground to oil and gas in the 1950s, Harry’s engineering chops informed his views in a way that suggested why he would have been a great teacher. In a 1963 review for The Eagle of Harry Caudill’s book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, he wrote:
“Much of eastern Kentucky’s present problems originated in a research laboratory. In the early 1940s a method of producing large-diameter seamless steel pipe was found. For years, vast amounts of natural gas had lain idle because there was no way to get it to market. This technical breakthrough supplied the way — and removed a 100-million-ton coal market…
“Less than five years later, out of the labs came a process to cast high-strength steel. This meant that heavy diesel engines could now be made small and light enough to fit a railroad locomotive. This displaced another 100-million-ton coal market…
“The third [laboratory] development was the development of [stronger-than-steel] tungsten carbide. The carbide bit fathered the continuous miner. The Lee Norse Continuous Miner compared to hand loading at South-East Coal Company cut employment by twothirds while production rose from 1,800 to 3,500 tons per day.
“The constant growth of the United States electric power industry has largely made up the loss in coal markets, but technology continues to replace men with machines. This is the central problem in eastern Kentucky and soon will be the central problem of the United States.”
It has been said that if you’re looking for trouble, the coal business will find you. Harry did not seek trouble, but it found him anyway — notably on two occasions.
In one multi-year, multi-million dollar conflict he and South- East prevailed. Then, figuratively speaking, the roof fell in.
First the win: In the early 1960s, South-East was still unionized. When coal markets collapsed, Harry and his father approached the UMW leadership to seek temporary relief from some of the most costly provisions of South- East’s collective bargaining agreement. The alternative was to go broke or non-union. Despite a history of positive relations with the company, the union refused, arguing that it was bound by the nationwide agreement.
South-East then went nonunion. The company survived a stretch of occasionally violent picketing but was then dealt a nearly fatal blow when its principal purchaser, Consolidation Coal — the nation’s most powerful coal company — suddenly stopped buying, in a move coordinated with the union and clearly intended to bankrupt South-East.
Harry and his father fought back, finding coal buyers where they could and taking Consol and the UMW to court, charging a conspiracy. An eight-year battle ensued that very nearly accomplished the conspirators’ goal, but in the end South-East was awarded an $8.7-million settlement — which, as Harry ruefully noted, barely covered its court costs.
Then, in the 1970s, rapidly rising coal prices created a demand among coal-burning utilities for stable long-term contracts with coal producers. South-East signed a 12.5-year contract with Kentucky Utilities in 1978. Then, when coal prices fell in the early 1980s, KU pressed South-East to drastically cut the negotiated price. When South-East refused, KU in 1984 went to court, paying the arbitrarily lowered price and forcing South-East to park the balance in an escrow account that eventually added up to more than $100 million — capital that South-East needed to keep operating but couldn’t touch.
“Goliath wants us dead,” Harry told us. And in a sad twist on the Bible version, Goliath had his way.
South-East fought, but KU prevailed at the circuit court level in 1990, forcing South-East to file for bankruptcy protection. The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in South-East’s favor in 1991, but KU then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled for the utility in 1992.
Things tumbled downhill from there. In a bizarre turn of events, the Chief Justice had excused himself from the case, and the court’s decision was written by a special justice — who proved to have ties to KU. When the court refused South-East’s urgent request to reconsider what appeared to be a tainted decision, South-East appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court — which declined to take the case. That forced the bankruptcy court to put South-East up for sale.
By this time South-East was operating only a single mine, at Linefork, as well as the company’s preparation plant at Irvine. The La- Viers family gamely tried to keep going. Harry’s sons Donald and Stephen formed a new company, DLX Mining, which successfully bid on the mine and prep plant in 1993. But meanwhile the mine had developed severe roof problems, forcing DLX to seek permission to mine an adjacent tract.
Alas, the tract lay under Lilley Cornett Woods, a unique oldgrowth forest that had never been timbered and enjoyed both federal and state protection as a registered national landmark. When its appointed steward, Eastern Kentucky University, objected to mining under the forest, the state refused to issue a permit. With nowhere else to turn, DLX closed the mine in June 1994, bringing a heartbreaking end to the South- East story.
Harry retired in 1995, sold his home in Irvine, and moved to a long-owned family home in Pompano Beach, Florida.
It’s painful to report that a man with such a fine mind succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease, but Harry did. He is survived by Sue, his wife of 63 years; by his daughter Beth; by his sons Hank, Donald, and Stephen; by grandchildren Joseph, Kristen, Laura, Amy, Lisa, and William; and by five greatgrandchildren.
On the wall behind his desk at work Harry kept a quotation from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:
“A leader is best when people hardly know that he exists; less good when they praise and obey him; worse when they fear and despise him. But of a good leader, when his aim is met, his dreams fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did this ourselves.’”
Harry LaViers Jr., led by example. He loved eastern Kentucky, loved mining, loved giving people good jobs, loved contributing to his community, loved thinking, loved his family. Whatever the ultimate condition of his dreams, he enabled any number of people to say “We did this ourselves.”