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Former UMW President Sam Church dead at 72

Steve Igo • Jul 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

WISE — A legendary Virginia coal miner who rose to the top of the United Mine Workers of America died in Bristol, Va., on Tuesday.

Former UMW President Sam Church, 72, was born in Matewan, W.Va., in 1936. His family moved to Virginia in 1944, and Church began working in the mines for Clinchfield Coal Co. in 1965. He forged a hard-nosed reputation as a union miner and was first elected field representative for the UMW’s District 28 in 1973.

“Today is a very sad day for the UMWA family,” union President Cecil E. Roberts said. “The hearts and prayers of every UMWA member are with Sam’s wife, Patti, and his son, Nathaniel.”

“Sam taught me to be tough. It helps,” Patti Page Church told the Times-News.

Roberts said Church’s lifelong dedication to the union “and all working families never wavered. UMWA widows have a pension today because Sam won that benefit at the bargaining table. He stood tall for miners afflicted by the scourge of black lung disease and insisted that they receive compensation for their illness, and that mine operators and the federal government take action to reduce exposure to the dust that causes black lung.”

Church’s meteoric rise up the union ranks was linked to Arnold Miller’s reform movement of 1972 after UMW President W.A. “Tony” Boyle’s regime became implicated in the murders of Joseph Yablonski and his wife and daughter. Yablonski was challenging Boyle for the union presidency when the family was slain in their home in Pennsylvania by “hit men” authorities later tracked to the very top of the UMW hierarchy.

In 1975, Church was appointed by Miller to serve with the international union’s contract department in Washington, D.C., and a year later he became Miller’s executive assistant. Miller selected Church as his running mate in the 1977 union elections. When Miller resigned in 1979 due to poor health, Church assumed the presidency of a union in transition until he was ousted in the next election by Richard Trumka in 1982.

“Sam was a good friend and a good labor leader,” Trumka, now UMW president emeritus and AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, said Tuesday. “He was a union man from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He will be greatly missed.”

Church hung up his suit and promptly returned to the coal mines in Wise County for Westmoreland Coal Co., and the UMW also made him director of the union’s political action committee in Virginia, a position he held until his death. He also served on the Appalachia Town Council and one term on the Wise County Board of Supervisors from 1972-75.

“Anytime a person serves Wise County in any aspect has to be admired because the job is hard, and he did things that were difficult for him to do, just like it is today,” said Robby Robbins, chairman of the Wise County Board of Supervisors. “We need to honor anybody willing to serve in any type of official capacity for the good of the public. I really didn’t know him that well — but everyone around here knew of him — and he will be missed, I’m sure.”

A longtime resident of Appalachia, Church spent the past few years of his life as a Lee County resident where his wife established her Jonesville law practice. Church suffered from Parkinson’s disease the last several years but succumbed to complications from a recent surgical procedure.

Patti Page Church said her husband was a fighter to the end, with physicians calling Church “one tough old bird.”

“From the time he was a little boy and organizing the shoeshine boys in Appalachia to make sure they were all charging the same price, he’s spent his entire life — not just his adult life — being a union guy,” she said.

“When he was president of the union and if someone asked what he did, he’d say, ‘I’m a coal miner.’ He was always a coal miner. The thing about his career was, he worked hard for working people. There was always a fight for working people, either fighting to get something on their behalf or a fight to keep someone from taking it away. So his work is not over for working families. The best way people can honor his legacy is for working people to continue his work.”

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