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Fri, Mar 24, 2017 09:08 PM
Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue
2003-06-27 communities
John Justice and the Children of Cedar
Changing the Image of Coal




CRYSTAL KANNEY'S painting, Cleaning Up was a winning entry in the 2001 Regional Coal Fair. (click for larger version)
The following is reprinted with permission from Coal People Magazine.




KAREN SMITH, coal study unit manager; George Diamond of Pike County Central, 2003 Teacher of the Year; Alanna Greene of Paintsville High School, 2003 Student Project of the Year winner; Karen Hamilton, Coal Fair manager; and John Justice. (click for larger version)
by Gayle Compton

Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, was being kind when he referred to coal as "a blessing and a curse." Ever since John C.C. Mayo bought his first tract of mineral property with a handful of silver dollars nearly a century ago, this dichotomy has persisted making coal the mongrel of big business. Thanks to an organization known as CEDAR (Coal Education and Development Resources) and its president, John F. Justice, coal is gaining a new respectability in six Eastern Kentucky counties.

I was faced with two problems when I set out to interview John Justice. Karen Hamilton, Regional Coal Fair manager, said John was a modest man who was not likely to submit to a This is Your Life personal profile. Furthermore, he was out of town caring for his daughter who had been wounded in a Shakespeare play. Imagining drawn swords and chivalry run amuck, I reached John by telephone at his daughter's apartment in Jefferson City, Tennessee. It seems that twenty-one-year-old Ellie, a student at Carson-Newman College, had recently added some unrehearsed drama to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet by falling off the stage during "lights out," breaking her right arm in two places. Her father had been that right arm for the past six weeks.

John Justice, indeed the self-effacing professional, lives with his wife Carolyn at Chloe Creek near Pikeville. John first learned the value of family — and of coal — as a twelve-year-old boy living on this same Pike County backroad. His father, a staunch Baptist minister, was also a coal miner who remained on the home front during World War II, hand-shoveling 50 tons of coal a day. "I wondered why he didn't go into the service. He said they wouldn't take him because he worked in coal and that was as important as being on the front lines."

John is a full-time employee of Pace Carbon Fuels, LLC, a synthetic fuels producer based in Chantilly, Virginia. He drives daily to his office in Blackwood, Virginia, where he is products manager for the plants at Norton, Virginia, and Chelyan near Charleston, West Virginia. But it's John's volunteer work for CEDAR, now entering its tenth year, that is changing the way we look at coal.

The birth of CEDAR occurred on a December day in 1992 when the president of the North Carolina Coal Institute came to John Justice asking his advice on how to best spend a portion of a discretionary $50,000. "It seems we always had $50,000 left in the bank," John said. "Groups for years have preached about how we need to improve the image of coal. At one of our meetings the president suggested that we take this money and do something to educate people about coal. I did some thinking and called David Gooch, president of Coal Operators and Associates of Pikeville. He said if some operators would join the NCCI effort we could start something. We knew that Reo Johns, Pike County school superintendent, was also in the coal business. The schools would have to agree to work the CEDAR program into their curriculum. I met with Reo and he jumped all over it."

CEDAR became an all-volunteer, not-for-profit corporation in July 1993. The inaugural Coal Fair that year involved 1,997 students and 47 teachers with 260 entries. It was a promising start.

"We knew when we started we couldn't improve our image overnight. We felt we could offer a program that was fact-based since we don't offer teaching plans and canned programs. We offer the tools — money in a lot of cases — and educational materials. We're a source for teachers to draw from and we give them guidelines to use as part of a grant agreement, but they have academic freedom to develop and implement a coal study unit in a classroom."

By the year 2000, five other counties had joined Pike, with 5,159 students and 130 teachers benefiting from grant money and educational materials offered for the creation of coal study units. CEDAR has made the study more enticing by offering a Student Project of the Year Award of $2,250 for the best over-all project. Since 1995, a School Awards Program has awarded points to those schools distinguishing themselves in the Coal Study Unit and Coal Fair programs. The top five schools get $500 each with the second five receiving $250 each. The money goes to the library fund of each school.

"With school budgets as tight as they are, a lot of teachers are really taking advantage of this. They work hard to get extra things for their students."

Since its implementation in 1996, the CEDAR Scholarship Program has attracted some of the region's most talented seniors. One senior from each high school is eligible to win $1,000 for researching and writing a paper on the benefits of coal and a chance for additional money by giving an Oral Presentation before a panel of judges. An Over-All Award of 1st-$5,000, 2nd-$3,000 and 3rd-$1,000 are given to those with the highest combined scores between the writing submission and the oral presentation. Thus far, 75 scholarships have been awarded totaling more than $130,000.

"One of the things I've seen come out of the oral presentation is that these kids are all astounded at how much they've learned. The common thread of it all was summed up by one student who said: 'There's this coal truck that goes by every morning at 3 o'clock hitting those pot holes and waking me up. I cursed that truck every morning until after I did research for this paper. I know now what that truck involves, the electricity it produces, the jobs it creates, the food it puts on my table.' The experience has taught a lot of kids that rather than looking at one thing in a great collage, they need to see the overall picture."

While talking with John Justice, one of the most positive human beings I've encountered, I was painfully reminded of those who have made it their business, and pleasure, to malign our homeland and its people. As early as 1873, long before coal was king, Lippincott's Magazine described Central Appalachia as "a strange land and a peculiar people." More recently, such documentaries as CBS's "Muddy Gut," Roary Kennedy's "American Hollow" and Robert Schenkkan's play Kentucky Cycle have presented Appalachia as a benighted culture. I asked John Justice if he felt CEDAR had become an effective antidote for such venomous publicity.

"From the beginning I have had a little saying that we want to be the Paul Harvey of the coal industry. There are two sides. We want to tell the rest of the story."

"Mr. Justice, may I show you my project?" With these words from a little girl at the first Coal Fair in 1993, John came to a full realization of CEDAR's purpose.

"She was Melissa Ratliff from Elkhorn City Elementary. Her family owned some property and had been approached by a coal company to lease. There were more against than for it. Melissa took it upon herself to do a financial study to see how her family and their community would benefit from leasing the property. They calculated the number of truck loads of coal at 40 tons a load, the number of jobs for truckers, the number of train loads, the jobs it would create in grocery stores—even the drycleaners. It was like dropping a pebble in the water and seeing how far those waves reached. As a result of the study, Melissa's family leased that coal, but I've often wondered what would have happened had it not been for CEDAR."

How far have we come? The answer, for me at least, comes from Crystal Kanney of Pikeville High School. Entitled Cleaning Up, her painting was a winning entry in the 2001 Regional Coal Fair. It seems simple at first, this water color of a coal miner taking his bath. He is a rather large miner, too large, in fact, for the galvanized wash tub into which he has insinuated himself for the purpose of removing several layers of Number 2 Elkhorn before supper. He looks like a man who has put in a shift with a breast auger in low coal. Perhaps he has loaded his proverbial "sixteen tons" doubling back in one of the old deep mines at Wayland, Estill or Wheelwright. For convenience the tub sits in the kitchen where the heat of the cookstove can warm his aching back while he lathers up with a bar of Big Deal soap most likely purchased at the company store with a piece of script. His wife, a woman with a young'un on her hip, has perhaps caught his bath water in a rain barrel set under the leak of the house and warmed with a pan of scalding water from the cookstove. She is not in the picture but I imagine her giving her husband's back a rub every now and then, keeping one eye on a kettle of beans and the other on members of the brood who have been told to "stay out of here till your daddy gets his clothes on, or I'll take his mining belt to you!"

Crystal Kanney is busy wrapping up her freshman year at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia.

One of the goals of CEDAR is "to enable our citizens to form a knowledgeable and unbiased opinion of the coal industry." This is a tall order when one considers the Matewan Massacre, for example, or recent slurry spills that have altered lives and disrupted an entire ecosystem. But John Justice is optimistic. "Everything in life has positives and negatives. The coal industry has created some of its own problems but over all I think we have evolved to a level where those in the mining industry are working environmentalists. Coal companies are working hard on becoming good neighbors."

For the people of Eastern Kentucky, coal is both livelihood and heritage, something to which we cling with umbilical tenacity. Coal is about doing an honest day's work, taking care of our families and being good neighbors. Many of us, however, are too busy enjoying the blessings of coal to realize that it is a business whose vitality depends not only upon its market value but its reputation as well. For John Justice, improving the face of coal has become both a mission and a responsibility. Might we all be as loyal.

John is proud of his staff of dedicated officers and directors, especially Coal Fair manager Karen Hamilton and Coal Study Unit manager Karen Smith. "I don't want to be perceived as somebody trying to take all the credit," John said emphatically. "I see myself as a coach at this point. I've got an excellent team. The two Karens, our directors and volunteers, along with the continued support of our corporate contributors, have kept CEDAR going. If I were to disappear today CEDAR would go on."

In spite of the vicissitudes of both the coal industry and student enrollment, CEDAR appears unstoppable. According to its president, "at the completion of this school year there will have been some 1,000 teachers receiving $400,000 to implement 650 Coal Study Units involving 39,000 students who have produced 5,000 Coal Fair projects." Meanwhile, CEDAR, Inc. is being emulated in two other coal fields with Western Kentucky CEDAR and CEDAR of Southern West, Virginia. Not bad for what began as a seed planted on a cold day in 1992.

Coal has come a long way — from the carbide lamp to computerized machinery, from the galvanized wash tub to the indoor Jacuzzi. Although it's still a long way to where we want to be, people like John Justice and the children of CEDAR will take us there.


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