September 12, 2008

Author Fights to Tell Underdog’s Story

By GARRET MATHEWS Courier & Press staff writer 464-7527 or [email protected]

OAKLAND CITY, Ind. - Regional historian Randy Mills worries sometimes that he lacks the proper countenance to be an effective interviewer of former soldiers and longtime veterans of the working class.

"I mean, I look too much like an academic. The receding hairline doesn't do me any favors."

The 57-year-old professor at Oakland City University needn't fret. He's penned six books - including three about the military - and has piles of notes in boxes for unfinished projects, including one about an Evansville College professor who lost his job in the late 1940s because he was perceived as a communist sympathizer.

Mills is midway through "As Long as there is Gasoline and Dynamite: The Southwest Indiana Coal Field Wars 1919-1935" that examines early efforts by unions to organize the mines.

The book also has material on a methane gas explosion in Francisco, Ind., in 1926 that killed 37 men, and a 1931 accident at the Little Betty Mine near Linton, Ind., that claimed 29 lives.

"From going over newspaper accounts during that period, it seems that death was something that happened almost daily," Mills says. "You had bad air. You had electrical shorts, and you had explosions from the improper handling of dynamite."

He spoke at last week's Labor Day celebration in Petersburg, Ind.

"I saw older coal miners with tears in their eyes. People don't realize the long struggle that took place to achieve decent pay and a safe work environment. To me, these guys were like members of the military in that they had to fight for their rights."

It wasn't uncommon for the militia to be called out to intervene in disputes between union and nonunion factions. In 1932, approximately 900 armed members of the Indiana Na

tional Guard were dispatched to Vigo County to free 78 miners who were surrounded by several thousand picketers.

"When operators closed mines, you had workers who were literally starving to death. One school principal took his own life, allegedly because he couldn't stand to see the children in his charge like that."

Hotbed of interest

There were no regulatory agencies in those days to require mine operators to provide proper working conditions.

Mills says labor "is a hotbed of academic interest right now. People like the underdog. There are myths about the purity of it all and what good guys they were."

He laughs.

"Writing a book is like running a marathon. You get tired after a while. You wonder how many marathons you have in you."

His other works include, "Unexpected Journey: A Marine Corps Reserve Company in the Korean War,""Honoring Those Who Paid the Price: Forgotten Voices from the Korean War" and "Troubled Hero: A Medal of Honor, Vietnam and the War at Home."

The latter book was about Pfc. Kenneth Kays, a Wayne County, Ill., man who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam. The conscientious objector had a troubled life after the war and committed suicide in 1991.

"When people ask why I write so much about the military when I didn't serve myself, I tell them it's out of guilt," Mills says.

He was never a coal miner either.

"One way to look at that is I have a novice approach to those professions. I'm not limited by rules. By being naive on the subjects, I can go places traditional researchers can't. Maybe I don't know as much, but I can use that curiosity to endear myself to them."

Mills grew up in rural Wayne County, Ill. Members of his family were involved in farming and construction.

"Early on, I saw what it was like to work for a living."

Randy Mills has learned that mines in this area often organized before operations in West Virginia and other places in Appalachia.

"I think that's because there was more of a group mentality here, a feeling of collectivism. In West Virginia, the spirit perhaps was more about the power of the individual."

In the book, he writes about two neighbors in Francisco fighting over a disagreement about union activity at an area mine.

The fight resulted in one death and caused long-lasting anger between the two families.

"There's so much to explore in our local history. I'm just scratching the surface."

A glance

Randy Mills' military works include:

n "Unexpected Journey: A Marine Corps Reserve Company in the Korean War"

n "Honoring Those Who Paid the Price: Forgotten Voices of the Korean War"

n "Troubled Hero: A Medal of Honor, Vietnam and the War at Home"

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