Back In My Day: Coal Country Heroes – In Coal Country, Some Make It To Just Give It Away

It is an interesting concept. Make as much as you can honestly so you have more to give to others. You know, kind of like what Nancy Pelosi, Barry Soetoro and The Big Guy do.

Well, we know better with that bunch and those like them. However, some people actually do it differently. It’s as if they take the words of Jesus seriously. This story is about such a family who did just that. Yet, they flew under the radar for many years in the media and public view, but not in the hearts and minds of the people they helped.

Before I go into that story, I need to move my paternal side of the family story along.

The Hillbilly Highway

The year was 1951. My parents had met in 1949 in the coal camp town of St. Charles, VA and married in 1950. My father worked for the Stonega Coal Company in St. Charles. which was headquartered in nearby Big Stone Gap of neighboring Wise County, VA. He was a surveyor and engineer for the company. He went to work one day and learned with my Papaw and the rest of the employees that the company was being sold over time to a larger company in Pennsylvania and that operations would be shut down in St. Charles over the coming year.

It was time to hit the Hillbilly Highway to find work in the Midwest factory towns where the jobs were, as so many in the region did after the war.

Could not resist…


My Mamaw and Papaw, Dad’s parents, decided that it was time to call it a day and move back to southeastern KY or northeastern TN, to areas that held family and friends where it was home. They determined that if there was no work, there was no reason to be in St. Charles. Papaw was limited in what he could do physically as he had become infected with the dreaded Black Lung Disease about the same time as Dad had left to join the Navy for WW II in 1942.

Papaw was an amazingly strong man to have survived that long. He was diagnosed with Black Lung in his early 50s. For nearly a year he was unable to work, but slowly learned to cope with it and build some stamina back over the months when most men passed away from it. In fact, his physician told the family he probably had six months to live when he made the diagnosis. Mamaw worked in food service at a grocery in town to help them survive. Gradually Papaw regained enough strength to return to the mines in an Inspector role, which is what he did for the next 7-8 years before the Stonega mine closure announcement.

He did it without drawing a lot of attention to himself as he was a quiet man. He was revered by his co-workers and was the only man that my mentally ill mother openly respected all of his life. He had a quieter bit of this guy in him as a WW I army veteran himself. He came by it honestly, his mother was a York, a first cousin of this guy’s mom…

Sgt. Alvin York

You might be surprised (or not) to know that what he ate and what he did after the diagnosis is similar nutritionally to what many of us have been doing with our nutrition and supplements along with exercise and rest to shield and restore us from bouts with COVID. Eggs with bacon or sausage for breakfast. Lots of vegetables with portions of beef, pork and chicken for lunch and dinner. Plenty of water, coffee and a glass of milk. A glass of beer a few days a month if they could afford it.

As he regained a bit of stamina after the diagnosis he would rise everyday at about 5 AM. He would go on a minimum 2 mile walk even in moderate winter weather. The Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper would be in the local market or paper box by the time he finished the walk and he would pick one up daily to start his reading.

Proper nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress relief, no interest in more toys, rent, just enough money, Bible reading daily, meditate and pray, follow current events, grow a garden and can, enjoy the outdoors, enjoy and help others, and love each other was the recipe for his and Mamaw’s peace and healing. Even with the problems of my parents and our dysfunctional family unit, I was able to see Papaw and Mamaw doing it well with very little. I made a mental note as a youth. It meant more because I did not see it at home. To say I was a Papaw and Mamaw boy would be an understatement.

Mamaw – A Woman After God’s Own Heart

With all due and proper respect for the Word’s statement about David being a man after God’s own heart in I Samuel 13:14, which obviously was true, so such a woman also existed on this planet many years later. Just like David, she realized her righteousness did not come from her actions, but from her love for and submission to God. She simply accepted all of His Word as true and applied it. At a time when others may have given up or ignored God, like David she chose to praise Him. Many of David’s psalms were full of his heartaches and even questioning of God, but he never stopped serving and worshiping Him. As I read Mamaw’s poems written over decades and remember my experiences with her, I see the same thing.

Mamaw was the star child of her poor family. Her father was a coal miner like so many in those years around Middlesboro, KY. She maxed out as an adult at 4′ 9″ and around 85-90 lbs., which made her pairing with my 6′, 200 lbs. Papaw a bit odd looking. She loved going to school and dreamed of one day being a teacher there. That dream was realized when the small town helped by paying for her to go to college to be a teacher in the area, which she did faithfully for many years in the coal camp towns. She loved nature, cooking, cleaning, sewing, writing poems, reading, helping others and smoking 3 Salem cigarettes per day. Yep, that’s right. They were smoked before or after meals. She did not enjoy eating or being around my mother.

She said more than a few dresses to wear each year were too many. She made them all with her sewing machine from patterns. She then gave away one or more that she had from the last batch. She had limited jewelry, accessories and makeup. In a similar manner she had one heavy coat, one light coat, a couple of scarfs, winter gloves, a few pairs of shoes. Her lingerie and stockings fit in one dresser drawer. All of it was planned and she wanted no clothing as a birthday or Christmas gift. Stationary, pens and/or a book would do just fine. She was never a girlie girl as the work required strong calloused hands with a mountain living fitness.

She quilted. I have the quilt she made that kept both or her children warm as babies.

She was thrifty because that was all she had ever known or desired. She wanted to make sure her family had plenty to eat, clean clothes and a roof over their head even if it meant she would do without other things. If the world overlooked her or considered her insignificant, it did not matter to her as she would devote herself to the needs of others until she drew her last breath. If a neighbor or friend needed anything and they had it to give it would be done. She had a resolve to simply not go down, not give up.

When you were in her presence and had her attention, you knew you were deeply loved. She would ask thoughtful and penetrating questions. If she did not give you her attention over an extended period of time, it meant you did not hold favor with her. She rarely said an angry word. The only person she clearly could not enjoy being around was my mother. She would just leave the room and avoid confrontation in front of the family. However, there was this one time when we were gone and they were there alone together. Boundaries were established that mother never crossed again.

When Papaw could no longer work, Mamaw continued to work to help them survive at a food service job or later as a cloth cutter in a shirt manufacturing facility in town until she was about 72 years old. When The Black Lung Benefits Disease Act was finally passed in 1972, having enough money to live on was not as much of a factor and she no longer worked outside their home.

The last 15 years or so of their lives together were spent living in a walk up rental apartment in an old, national historic site mansion (more like a large frame Victorian style house) in LaFollette, TN. They were very content there. The owner was a widow of a downtown hotel owner/operator. The home was built by one of the two brothers that originally founded the town. A large vegetable garden was located on the property. Mamaw and Papaw would tend the garden every year with the owner. In return she would give them whatever they desired to eat and can to help them get through the colder months. It was a much appreciated lifeline and the three became close friends through the years. As a result they could save money to buy coal to heat their apartment with the fireplace. Yes, they used coal to stay warm. Which is how fireplaces were built back in the day in the region, to handle coal and wood. It was amazing they survived for all those years doing that, even without a CO and smoke detector! 😉

Also on the property were many beautiful gardens, a gazebo and a stream. It was there that Mamaw could enjoy nature, be at peace and have a place to contemplate her next poem or work on a quilt in the cool of the evenings or by the fire. She would enjoy having a cup of coffee and a conversation with her owner friend during those times.

She never declined mentally until the day she died. Her body gave out because she had no appetite. The rest of us would dive into her great country cooking when we visited, while she might have a small plate of pinto beans and a slice of cornbread with milk. She would allow her body to become dehydrated in the last few years, which basically led to her death at age 78 as her organs shut down and she could not be revived. She had left us and gone to be with her blessed Lord and Savior. I am sure he welcomed her with open arms with a heavenly choir singing. Our loss was Heaven’s gain.

Papaw spent his last few years living alternately with both my parents and my aunt until he passed away in his sleep of old age in my parent’s home.


While they were living out their lives on the eastern side of our region’s coal country; on the western side of the northeastern TN mountains in Scott County there was a a young saw mill and timber businessman working for his father. Wanting to do more with his life, he left to learn the coal business and be a salesman at the recently formed Garland Coal Company. He stayed with the company and eventually became its President. Years later he left and began buying other distressed coal companies and their mines while buying interests in the timber business. Over time he combined coal mining operations in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia with timber operations into one company called Elk River Resources. He accumulated a vast fortune over those years. As he entered his early 70s he sold the company for $300 million, which would be the equivalent of at least a couple billion dollars today. The value of the transaction was enhanced greatly by an invention from his design that the company used in its coke making processes.

It was the original emission free coke oven. The answer to the growing environmental and health issues associated with using coke produced from coal in industrial furnaces.

Did I just write, “emission free”? Yes, I believe I did. Of course that is a relative statement, so let’s just go with proven safe emission levels. Below is a link from about 2010 to a comprehensive explanation of the more recent usage, status and evolution of the process for those so inclined to dive into the weeds.

B. Ray Thompson, Sr.

That’s the name of the Scott County, TN native that made the fortune while helping develop an environmentally friendly product and process that made the use of coke safer. Having made many millions prior to selling his company for hundreds of millions, he needed something to do for the last decade of his life. What follows is a testament to a father and son who had big hearts for their fellow mankind.

Going back to when it all began; after the birth of his second son, his first wife passed away. Not long thereafter he moved with his two sons from Scott County to Knoxville in 1941 with 2 dollars in his pocket. He married his second wife some time later, who also passed away of cancer in 1953. He continued in his sales role and then began the previously described process of buying coal companies and timber rights in the early 1960s with his sons, which became Elk River Resources as described above.

His dream was always to give back to the people and children of the areas of his youth. Elk River was known for doing just that by helping in many ways. As he neared his death, in 1987, the Thompson Charitable Foundation (TCF) was formed and later, the Elgin Foundation was formed by son, B. Ray Thompson, Jr., and family. The later was named for the community in which Senior was born and raised. The Elgin Foundation is devoted to helping children throughout the region while the TCF is for overall donation purposes. In addition, Senior was well known for giving a $5 million donation for a seed contribution to the construction cost of a large new basketball and entertainment arena on campus known as Thompson-Boling Arena, which is in use by the University of Tennessee to this day. He resisted having the facility named after him until a group of influential boosters led by Pilot Oil’s Big Jim Haslam agreed with B. Ray to add the President of UT’s name for whom all had great respect, Ed Boling, on the sign with him.

B. Ray Sr. had been deeply hurt by the loss of his second wife to cancer. After he sold his company, he used part of his funds to provide the seed capital to do something about that evil disease. A local hospital, Ft. Sanders, now part of the Covenant Health System chain, worked with him to establish a dedicated cancer diagnostics and treatment facility on their main hospital campus near the university now known as Thompson Cancer Survival Center. It has become an important addition to the region as the premiere oncology center regionally as described in the link below.

My wife and daughter use it annually for breast exams and our daughter also interned as a volunteer there as she was pursuing a nursing degree.

Upon his passing away at 81 years of age, the TCF had been established and left in the care of family members, with his son as President.

B. Ray Thompson, Jr.

Oh my, what a man. If you do not care for Christianity, giving back and paying it forward – you might want to sit out the rest of this story.

Junior went by the name of Ray while his father was always B. Ray. I am calling him Junior to differentiate from his father. He went to school in Knoxville with his younger brother after the move from Scott County with their father. Senior had purchased a home along Maryville Pike there. He went to the University of Tennessee. I know that not because of open media type sources and reports. I know because my father knew him. They were both in their first year at UT after the end of WW II. Dad was 6 years older than Junior with 4 years in the Naval Air Force and had already completed 2 years of college at Lincoln Memorial before the war. He had grown up in coal country on the eastern side, Junior had his western Scott County roots where his grandparents still lived. They both knew the coal business of their parents. Junior planned to get a business degree, Dad was going for civil engineering. I have Dad’s student enrollment book information from 1946-47 with them and other notables in it that he would talk about through the years.

My father was done with school in two years and took an entry level job locally with ALCOA (Aluminum Company of America) in the Parts Department. Junior continued until graduation a couple of years after that. About the time Junior graduated, Dad returned to the mines to be a surveyor/engineer where Papaw was employed in his native Campbell County, TN. He then started his International School the Mines education. Junior stayed in Knoxville and went to work with Elk River with his father, where he became an integral part of company operations. Their paths did not cross after that although a good friend of Dad’s that he remained close to for many years was a Knoxville attorney who did legal work for Elk River at times.

So, when Junior’s father sold the company in the 70s to Sun Corporation some 25 years later, he was a major beneficiary. Senior handed the family investments to Junior. He was also over the foundation development plans while Senior stayed close to the major business and university leaders who were his friends.

It was during his working years with Elk River that Junior, his wife and children started going to the evangelical 200+ year old Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church. Oh yeah, who else do we recall has been a long standing member of that church? That would be former mayor, governor and current owner in Pilot Oil, Bill Haslam and his wife and family. In reality, Junior was involved with so many churches and Christian ministries that he was claimed by all.

Junior was married to his wife, Juanne, for 63 years until his death at age 88 in 2017. She died a few months later at the age of 85. They were totally devoted to each other. They had 4 daughters and a son along with a bunch of grandchildren. He left a legacy that will probably never be fully known except in Heaven. The number of kids who have been helped through the Elgin Foundation he started in honor of his father and their roots in rural eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia has been estimated by charity leadership at over 90,000. Free dental services have been provided to over 35,000 children in the region alone. The Foundation continued on after his passing five years ago and is run by his three daughters doing what it has always done. During the later half of Junior’s life he was personally involved in many of the individual charities and with the recipients on a daily basis. The best part is the general public never really noticed because he wanted no publicity, just like his father. Just went about helping others daily from the blessings already provided to themselves. He also did his part to support UT athletics with an $11 million donation to build the indoor practice field used by the football team as well as $2.5 million for a renovation of the arena. TCF still gives away millions each year.

The simplicity of his obituary speaks to his humble spirit:

The most recent record of Thompson Charitable Foundation donations:

Elgin Foundation


In case you were wondering, their first names were Buster. Now you see why Senior went by B. Ray and Junior went by Ray. There would have been a lot of jokes to endure during those days. Right, Buster?! How do you like your new shoes, Buster? Listen here, Buster! 🤣

Or, you can call me Ray…

Still love this one after all these years.

In all families there are difficult circumstances. In addition to the loss of Senior’s two wives, Senior’s other son, Jesse Jackson Thompson, Junior’s one year younger brother, was estranged from his family. He left in the 1960’s and never came back. He passed away over 20 years ago and is buried in Charlotte, NC with no record of any other family members being involved. A business associate of Junior once told me there were mental problems and that he had refused all efforts by Senior and Junior to assist and be a part of the family.

At the end of his life my father expressed a few regrets. One was that he had ever left east TN. Yep, I get that one. Another was that he should have stayed with ALCOA through their rapid growth as he would have eventually been able to do what he wanted with his career there. Yep, a lot of our friends and neighbors had good careers there. The other was questioning what would have happened had he come back to work with Elk River instead of staying in the Midwest to finish his career. Thompson’s Elk River Resources flourished while the Armco steel mill where he worked for 36 years went downhill and sold out.

Forks in the road type stuff. I could have been tactful and nice. Nah. I told him he messed up, but it was OK because I was his son as a result. He laughed and agreed with me. Those are the type decisions we all face at various times in our lives. Water under the bridge.

The Thompson moral of the story is clear. Persevere through tough times. Do the right things and take advantage of opportunities. Make money the right way and then give it away along with your time to those who could use a helping hand. It’s a Christian principle that you will never out give God. The world is a better place because of Coal Country Heroes like the B. Rays and their families. The lesson…

Be blessed and do something like Mamaw, the B. Ray’s, or Andrea wherever you are and whatever your situation.

Next up we will arrive at our Coal Country destination before beginning the next series.

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Thanks, TradeBait – I look forward to your stories and insights. The Appalachian area of our country has good people – the heart and soul of our country are the red rural areas.


So much more happens in the quiet and dedicated places, than onstage with the popinjays.

Happy go lucky

Oooo….I’ve been waiting for this one, I’ve been so curious to learn more about Mamaw. It was worth the wait, thank you.