I first met Larry when I traveled to southern West Virginia in 2009 to cover the dynamiting of the mountaintops to extract coal from the seams beneath. I got there on the last day of an "Elders March" against the practice and encountered a small man in a neon yellow t-shirt emblazoned with these words about his mountains: "Love 'em or leave' em, just don't destroy 'em." This photo was taken on my latest trip this July. (He's pictured with another giant in the struggle, his good friend Ken Hechler, seated.)
Larry was giving the 20 or so marchers their orders for the day -- where they'd be going, what they could expect, and the details of the rally outside an MTR site that would end the march.
That's basically what Larry was doing every time I saw him -- urging locals and supporters who came from afar to stand strong against the desecration of the land, including family cemeteries like his own, that were either destroyed or put off-limits by the coal companies. He lived in his ancestral home atop Kayford Mountain, which had been mostly carved out by MTR operations and looked like a moonscape, except for the sliver he'd been able to hold onto. And to that sliver thousands of persons had come over the years, to hear his story and see first-hand the destruction. When I went up there with a group of college students who had come for an activists' training weekend, the area was socked in by fog; I was standing on the edge of the precipice and couldn't see a thing, but I could feel the strong wind that blew through, confirming the findings of a recent study that putting a wind farm on the top of one of the remaining intact mountains would be economically feasible -- and a whole lot cleaner than blasting out the coal.
I saw Larry again last year when I covered the March on Blair Mountain, when hundreds of MTR opponents marched for five days in record heat from near Charleston to the site of the biggest labor insurrection in U.S. history, when thousands of miners confronted mine owners' militias and sheriffs' deputies in 1921 to demand union recognition. Near the end of the hottest day's march (it was about 100 degrees), I began to feel faint and took refuge in Larry's air-conditioned truck, where I recovered quickly. The next day he told me how bad I'd looked, inquired about my well-being and admonished me to take care of myself (which I'd thought I was doing.)
The last time I saw Larry was just six weeks ago, when I went down to cover an action on an MTR site (recounted in several of the stories linked on my website). He spoke, as always, about the need to defend the rights of Appalachian residents against the depredations of Big Coal -- including the miners who hated and threatened Larry and his family, because they feared losing their jobs if MTR were stopped.
I still can't believe this man, so full of life and passion, is gone. He died of a heart attack while working on his beloved mountain, at the age of 66. I'll be heading down for his public memorial, date to be announced.