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A VISIT FROM KPW

by Suzanne E. Tallichet
Photo By: Paul Sellaggio

Photo By: Paul Sellaggio

t happens every time I hear "Amazing Grace" because they played it that cold, drizzling November day we gathered to remember KPW in a way I hoped he would have wanted. I get this tight knot in my throat that only tears can cure. I hate to cry, and I doubt he would have wanted that. But worry is a habit. I always worried about disappointing him, especially during those early days when I went to his office with parts of a dissertation I had doubts would ever take any sort of shape, let alone reach the stature of my own satisfaction. Those days I guess I worried less about what I thought of myself and more about wasting his time and letting him down. My first few attempts to begin were returned with one or two encouraging comments in the margin. But I remember one in particular very clearly. It read: "This is very interesting, but what does it have to do with your dissertation?" I laughed pretty hard at that one. I suppose I needed to because as a colleague once warned me: "The man's got a bullshit detector a mile long." Small wonder how he earned the nickname "old poison pen," but if you could get his approval it really meant something special. You had earned respectability because I knew implicitly, as did others, that the man was a true scholar.

  Well, my dissertation [Moving Up Down in the Mine: Sex Segregation in Underground Coal Mining] finally happened. I don't remember exactly how anymore, but the whole thing just snowballed, and I could feel the momentum. After a while I became driven more and more by my own devices and less by his refrain, his stamp of approval at the end of each chapter: "I look forward to your next one." I remember graduation. He gently hooded me in the bright glare of legitimacy, conferring the right to begin a career of my own. In quiet inspiration, he passed the torch that lit my way. I had been blessed. My confidence was born of his counsel, and so we are forever linked.


  But this story is not yet over because I also will never watch a spotted fawn frolicking in the shadows of dusk as I once did without remembering these things. A fawn was the symbol used to remember him on that damp, bone-chilling November day. It represented his old life and perhaps a new beginning if you entertain any belief in the cycle of all living things.

  For one day that following summer, I sat in my cramped, unkempt kitchen, hungover and vulnerable to anxiety at the prospect of refashioning my dissertation into a book. The sticky Kentucky air hung heavy with cigarette smoke like the demons of my own self-doubt. And so I began to counsel myself as KPW would have. What would he say to you now, I queried, unaware at that moment of the soft brown face that had appeared at the screen door. I turned to face a lone yearling peering knowingly at me with eyes of shining solace into my consternation, as if to defy my desperation. And then it slipped out of sight. In an instant, I crept to the doorway and stood in utter amazement. The deer was truly alone and casually grazing several yards away. And then it turned once, twice unafraid to face me again wagging its tail like a metronome keeping time to a furious dirge that only it could hear. Slowly, it moved off and with one final wistful toss of its head, gracefully slipped into the woods aligning the creek bank. I stood in stunned silence, once empty, now fulfilled with a sense of mission.


  At first I only told a few of my closest friends about it. I told them I had been visited by KPW, and they too accepted that interpretation as the only explanation available to us. I think about this experience often and I believe only ancient peoples interpret it best. A common set of beliefs held by native Americans regards animals as other beings, sharing an equal status with humans. At one time, humans and animals communicated directly, and today they still do so with their own sense of purpose. It is through this communication that we become as one with the animal, with one another, and ultimately with ourselves, and so we lose our fear from without or within. This way we become the other and yet remain true to ourselves. It is the basis for the interconnectedness between diverse beings. It is the beginning of our existence that really has no end. And I believe it is the ultimate meaning of community of which KPW was so very fond.

ue Tallichet is an associate professor in the department of sociology, social work, and criminology at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She teaches courses in introductory sociology, sociological theory, and graduate seminars in Appalachian culture and symbolic interactionism.

 


  Sue writes: Virtually all the scholarly work I have done at Morehead stems from my dissertation with only a few exceptions. Since I left Penn State in 1993, I've worked with Carolyn Sachs, who was my co-advisor on the dissertation, and two of my former fellow graduates at Penn State--Roz Harris now at University of Kentucky and Jeff Bridger at Penn State. Other than book reviews, my publications have come from the dissertation.

  "My work at Morehead also includes a longitudinal expansion of the dissertation. During the summer of '95 and '96, I received internal grant money from Morehead's research funds to go back to the case study site" [for further investigation].

Sue is in the midst of writing a book about Appalachian women coal miners. She writes: One thing I'm adamant about is that the book will give something back to the women miners. These women are Appalachian women. Appalachia is, to me, an internal colony like other rural areas. The big corporations took the timber, took the coal, and for decades never paid one penny in taxes. Small wonder that schools are still poor in many respects. Literary writers and researchers also have robbed the people of their culture through stereotypical portrayals. I aim to give something back. So -- I want to give a part of the proceeds from the book, at least half of them, to the Coal Employment Project, a coal mining women's advocacy group.

  In the meantime, I've received some notoriety for my work. I was written up in the Lexington Herald-Leader. The story was carried over the Associated Press wire and appeared in several other coal field newspapers. I also was featured on the cover and inside Morehead's annual research magazine and featured in the alumni news magazine. Basically, I am humbled by it all. I'm a vehicle or a means by which a group of mentally and physically tough women are finally getting the notoriety they deserve. I think the only time the public has heard about them is when one of them files a sexual harrassment suit. This only scratches the surface; there's a lot more to the story besides sexual predation. I want this book to be a sociological analysis of a single case study mine that represents a shining moment in labor history. The core audience will be academic: other researchers and students. The wider audience will be folks interested in American history and coal mining.

  As a final note, I can never sit down to do my work on this project without thinking of KPW. He is always in the back of my mind, pushing and prodding me when I'm not doing the same to myself. I readily admit, too, that at times when I remember that he's gone, I pause briefly from my work to just sit, and occasionally just to cry.


    Suzanne E. Tallichet
    Associate Professor
    314 Rader Hall
    Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminology
    Morehead State University
    Morehead, Kentucky 40351-1689

    Office phone: (606) 783-2108
    e-mail: s.tallic@msuacad.morehead-st.edu