Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Eulogy for a friend

Eulogy for a friend, Frank Adkins.

Before I begin, Reverend Bill, I think that Frank would like me to say these next few words; “The emergency exits for this building are located at the front and rear of this sanctuary. Our assembly area is directly outside of the fellowship hall. Thank you.”

Sunset and evening star,
      And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
      When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
      Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
      Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
      And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
      When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
      The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
      When I have crost the bar.

It is appropriate that this poem is recited today. Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1889 described death and dying as a kind of journey upon the sea and when the tide was right, the flood would carry him over the bar, a sandbar, quietly into the open sea to meet his “Pilot,” the Lord God, face to face. Certainly, Frank Adkins, a highly decorated Naval Officer would appreciate the analogy contained within those words.

But also, Frank would appreciate such poetry because in addition to being a man of the mountains, he was a man of letters, a lover of poetry and the words of The Bard, Shakespeare.  Among other things, he was a Shakespeare scholar which helped lead to our almost 20 year friendship.

After attending one of his MSHA Law seminars, we discovered our mutual interest in literature and poetry, as well as our feeble attempts to craft our own poems. When I shared with him that my studies focused on American Literature, he smiled and told me of the times he met and spoke with Robert Frost, the American poet.  It was then that I knew that this man would always be a part of my life.

In addition to being a man of letters, he was also a man of moonshine. Carolyn, I must admit that when I read the words, “crossing the bar,” I envisioned Frank crossing a bar, to grab the bottle and fill everyone’s cup with another dram of fine whiskey, making sure everyone was properly taken care of, comfortable and welcomed.

For that is the kind of person he was, no one a stranger and welcoming to all. It was his way.

He was a man of the sea and a man of the mountains that he loved so dearly, returning to them time and again.

He was a man of passion and deep love for his beloved wife, Carolyn, Miss Blue. She also freely acknowledges his love of the mistress of mining and the men and women in this most vital of trades. He had no hobbies but lived a life larger than most people can fathom.

If the measure of a man is taken by the number of people he influenced, helped, touched and improved their lives, Frank was the largest man I’ve ever known.  Husband, father, honored grandfather and family member, and highly decorated but silent war hero. He rarely spoke of such things, but we know he received at least three purple hearts, served three rotations in Vietnam and received the highest honors for bravery while serving his country.

For me and others, he was a colleague, leader and mentor. I like to think of him as a cantankerous Yoda of that industry to which he dedicated his final years.

Last evening, several of his friends assembled today attempted to calculate the number of children’s mothers and fathers who work in mining that are alive today because of Frank’s sage guidance and leadership in mine safety. I daresay that it is easily in the tens of thousands. Through his tireless efforts, miners and operators were provided information and inspiration to make mines safer through Frank. There are countless people alive today because Frank walked this earth. This is his legacy.

He accomplished this through education. Within his work for the State of North Carolina Department of Labor and more significantly through his Safepro seminars and Institutes he provided sage counsel to miner and mine boss alike about mine safety law requirements. He sought justice and fairness to all concerned within the legal framework that governs mining activities.

He provided confidence to miners and operators to stand up for ourselves in a heretofore intimidating relationship with enforcement agents; but always keeping in mind that the safety of the man with shovel in his hand, the woman operating the rock crushers, and your neighbor handling a front-end loader the size of a small school house was paramount. He reminded us that the easiest way to keep from getting a ticket was to keep a clean house, remove hazards whenever they arose and never let your people venture into harm’s way. If an operator did not take care of his people, then they deserved whatever penalty may befall them.

He reminded us that mining was an ancient and honorable profession. Our forefathers were the colliers of England, extracting coal in filthy seams to drive the industrial age in Europe, the Aztec following silver veins in South America in order to create ornate finery for their kings, the Native American chipping away sandstone to extract turquoise from which beautiful objects of crafted art were made.
The coal miner in West Virginia, the feldspar miner in North Carolina and the surface sand and gravel miner in California are all an important part of our country’s prosperity as they help build highways on which tanker trucks carry milk to corner grocery stores and in fact help build the foundations of our homes, schools and indeed the foundation of this holy sanctuary. Without the miner, working day and night, often in less than desirable conditions, we would have none of these things that we so often take for granted.
Further, these honorable men and women deserve our respect and they deserve the promise of providing the safest conditions, tools and practices available.  Truly, he reminds us, our industry’s greatest resources are not the plentiful mineral deposits of this great land, but the miner who seeks to carefully extract them from a greedy earth.

Dylan Thomas, in 1951, wrote a poem to his father who was leaving this existence that is perhaps his most accessible poem and from which I quote the first and last stanzas;

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Frank did not go gentle into that good night. He died doing what he did best and doing what he could to honor our profession when he passed into that good night last week. Until the very end, he sought to impart his knowledge and experience to an industry that needs to remember his lessons and to heed his charge that we owe it to every miner to see they return to the loving arms of their families at the end of each shift, dirty, tired but intact.

Though his name will be carved upon stone in remembrance, his will also be carved into our hearts. As I sat in the front pews today, his poet’s voice came to me as I wrote these simple lines;

“A man of the mountains
Home from the sea.

A guiding light for us
So wise was he.

Though all shall be dust
In our final days.

You shall be remembered
In so many ways.

Go forth, our good man
We follow your lead.

Venture on, my good friend
Maintain course and speed.”

Our loss with Frank’s passing is a deeply personal one and it is a loss to every miner I know. His work will continue as each of us carry his message and quest for a day when no one dies, working deep in a chasm of earth as they build a good life for their families.  When Frank looked at a mine, he did not see a scar across a landscape, he saw families being provided for, food on a table, the children of miners going to college and a comfortable retirement for each miner. This was his vision, this was his dying wish.

When my father died 17 years ago, Frank, unbeknownst to him filled in many of those fatherly roles as sounding board, confidant, collaborator and someone to just bellyache with. For that I am grateful to him and to Carolyn for allowing me to borrow her husband now and again.

When I think of Frank this way, I am reminded of a scene in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. The young Prince of Denmark has returned home to mourn the loss of his father. He has been told that the King’s ghost has been seen on the battlements of the castle by others, in ghostly form, and it appears that he is trying to convey a message to the living. In Act 1, Scene 2, the young Prince says this of his father;

“He was a man. Take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.”

Frank, we are listening though truly, we shall not meet another like another like you again.

Thank you.