Saturday, July 14, 2012

Black Lung Is Back: For My Family It Never Left

NPR highlighted new evidence that the killer of coal miners - Black Lung - is back. For my family, it never left. In the early part of the last century, my maternal grandfather, Rufus Necessary, was a coal miner in Wise County in Southwest Virginia. He had a wife, Lula, and several children; 2 daughters and 2 sons. He came down with black lung prior to 1912. The mining company moved him into the office to do bookkeeping. Sometime in 1912 just before the birth of his youngest child, he died. Lula and the children were taken in by relatives but it was not a permanent solution. The family decided to distribute the older children to various relatives nearby. That left an 18 month old baby girl who bore her father's name, Rufus Necessary.

Ruth nee Rufus at 2 with Mike the dog
What was to become of her? None of the family members wanted to take on a younin' so through the local church network the word went out. Living not too far away in the little town of Appalachia were a childless couple, Rob and Lottie Jett. They adopted the little girl and changed her name to Ruth Jett. Rob worked for a small coal-hauling railroad where he had started out as a telegrapher and worked his way up to finally becoming a superintendent. Little Ruth grew up in somewhat more fortunate circumstances in the little town. Almost unheard of at the time, she eventually went to William and Mary and started a new life as a teacher. She eventually married and had a family, continued teaching and studying, and ended up with masters degrees in English and Counseling and a PhD in English education. She finished her long career as a professor at a local college in Roanoke, Virginia.

But Ruth still bore the scars of the death of her father. She loved her adopted parents and they doted on her. As an adult she was close to one of her brothers and they visited back and forth. Still there was a gnawing feeling of loss and abandonment flying under the surface. Black lung had stripped her of her biological family.

The mining companies and industry groups continued to deny reality and death certificates almost never bore the words "black lung" as cause of death. Today with a resurgence of the disease exacerbated by the addition of silica to the deadly coal dust not much changes. The industry denies, allies in Congress want to investigate the folks who did the latest study, the President doesn't want to push the issue in an election year, and with the general gridlock, there is no hope of action now.

 In 1912, Lula Necessary was faced with a bleak future and devastating choices. She had no government safety net, no access to the courts, and no skills with which to make a living and support her kids. She had to give away her children and hope for the best. Records show she eventually found work as a domestic servant and may have married. Her children all did well and entered the middle class as professionals. Rufus and Lula's grandchildren also became professionals and raised families of their own. None of us bear the scars but we do have the sad family memories and an abiding belief that it should not have to happen to others.

My mother, Ruth/Rufus, and her family were victims exactly 100 years ago. In that time, how many more miners and their families have been destroyed?

Why am I posting this on my strategic leadership blog? Simple,

Black Lung is back because of lack of leadership at every level. The feds, the states, the coal companies, the unions, and industry associations have all been complicitous.

100 years is too long to wait for the elimination of this killer.

Where are the leaders?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dirtiest Election Ever: July 4th Battle of the Titans

Thomas Jefferson. John Adams. Comrades in the revolutionary struggle. Friends. Allies. Not in 1800.

In 1800 they squared off against one another in what many historians rate as the dirtiest election ever. They were the public face of the newly minted political parties; Adams for the Federalists and Jefferson for the Republicans. They were locked in a battle with few rules and fewer scruples.

But that wasn't always the case. In 1776 they were members of the historic Continental Congress. They were ahead of many of their contemporaries in realizing the need to break from Britain. Although Jefferson was relatively new to the Congress and Adams was a seasoned veteran, Adams recognized the talents of Jefferson immediately. They were designated a committee along with Ben Franklin to draft a document for the Congress to declare independence. Adams immediately suggested Jefferson pen the draft for them to review.

The rest, as they say, is history. Jefferson penned the document, the Congress did a little editing, and then they members signed. The official signing date was set for July 4, 1776 and has been celebrated ever since. Adams believed the day should be marked with fireworks and celebrations and tonight I'll be off to watch some locally and listen to my husband play in the Greater Miami Symphonic Band. It will be a joyous celebration.

But there is another anniversary to notice today. After many years of close friendship and public service, Jefferson and Adams entered our first federal government in 1788. Adams became George Washington's Vice President and Jefferson Secretary of State. The slow unraveling of a long relationship began as they drifted to different ends of the political spectrum. By the third national election in 1796, the proto-parties had emerged and with some maneuvering behind the scenes by Alexander Hamilton, Adams, the Federalist, became president while Jefferson, the Republican, became Vice President. The split became complete and set the stage for the battle of titans in 1800.

With Jefferson's victory, Adams infamously lit out of town early on inauguration day to avoid formally passing the reigns of government to his bitter foe. And so the animosity festered below the surface for years. Almost a decade later, their mutual friend Benjamin Rush began a quiet campaign to reunite the former friends. For the last years of their lives they renewed that relationship forged in the crucible of the Revolution and wrote a series of letters not just for one another but for us. In the process, the terrible memories of the 1790s and early 1800s fell away, and a remarkable friendship emerged again. They talked history, politics, farming, and aging. These letters should be required reading for every citizen. There is no better insight into the minds of two of the revolutionary brotherhood.

But here's where truth is stranger than fiction. In 1826 both titans turned down requests to speak at the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence celebrations. Both replied they were ill and not feeling well. As the day drew near, both men took to their beds, terminally ill. Jefferson drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometime in the early hours of July 4th he seemed to rally and asked, "Is it the 4th yet?" Adams woke briefly in the afternoon and said, "Jefferson still lives." But Jefferson was already gone and Adams joined him.

After an almost life-long relationship with its depths and heights, these two extraordinary founders of the republic died exactly 50 years after bringing the founding document into existence and more importantly dedicating themselves to founding our country. You cannot make this stuff up.

So are there any lessons for leaders, for politician, for individuals? Perhaps only one: Do not allow politics or other such foolishness to separate you from other people. Friendship - true relationships - are more important than ideology and other inanities. If Jefferson and Adams could survive the dirtiest election ever and reconnect, there is some hope for our own fractured country.

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What's your idea: Do you have friends and do you maintain relationships with people you disagree with in politics? Please post your comments.
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©Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, president, Advantage Leadership, Inc.  Http://
Want to know more about the tumultuous fights at the Constitutional Convention and the election of 1800? Check out
Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers

I NEED YOUR HELP: I'm beginning research for my new book on the influence of leaders on their organizations (Washington's Shadow) and I'm interested in your experiences or ideas for case studies. Do you know a leader who has had a profound influence shaping the organization's culture and changing it for the better? (I'm not interested in negative stories which are much more common.) Drop me a note: