Columnist "Bumped Into" Powerful Union Boss
Columnist, then a teenaged marching band member, recalls "bumping into" legendary union leader John L. Lewis at a convention
Reflecting on good memories accumulated over a lifetime is one of the joys of retirement. Our memory is kind to us in enhancing some of the unusual or key moments of a long and productive life.
I have spent 51 years working as a newspaper, radio, TV and online journalist. During that time, I have had numerous brushes with greatness.
Although I have had "brushes” with Grace Kelly (Princess Grace of Monaco), Sophia Loren, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Meredith Baxter-Birney, Reba McIntire, Ricardo Montalban, Gloria Estefan, skater Peggy Fleming, Carrie Underwood, ex-Vice President Dan Quayle and every president of the United States from John F. Kennedy through George H. Bush, none was stranger than when I ran into John L. Lewis when he was president of the United Mine Workers Union.
To veteran miners, Lewis, who died in 1969, was the legendary dictator synonymous with the union’s golden era.
All business and rarely seen with a smile, the bushy-browed Lewis led the UMW with an iron fist until his retirement in 1960. He defied – even thumbed his nose – at U.S. presidents and the titans of American industry.
The anecdotes associated with him are as big as the man himself. He began working in the coal mines at age 12. As a teenager, he was kicked by a mule. Lewis picked up the wooden brake lever of a coal car and brained the animal on the spot. True story.
He decked an American Federation of Labor official at a union convention in 1935 with one punch. And he told off U.S. presidents and high-ranking officials regularly.
When John L. Lewis and I bumped into each other, I was a 17-year-old high school senior. It happened at a hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1956. As a member of the Coaldale (Pa.) Victory Band, a community marching and concert band in the anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania, I had the honor of being selected to accompany the band to the United Mine Workers quadrennial convention. Ours was one of just four bands chosen nationwide.
I watched with fascination as Lewis, then 76, deftly handled the dissidents during confrontations on the convention floor. He spoke in a low rumble, almost monotonic voice, his eyebrows rising and falling in time to his degree of agitation. If he felt he was losing control or wanted to cut off a wouldn’t-say-die orator, he would merely point to one of the four bands, which would strike up a spirited march and drown out the combatant.
The bands alternated playing evening concerts at four of Cincinnati’s largest hotels, which also served as headquarters for UMW delegates and their guests.
One night, being several minutes late for one of our hotel concerts, I was sprinting through the lobby of The Hotel Sinton. When I turned the corner, I collided full bore with Lewis. My alto horn case went flying, and both of us went sprawling to the floor in a tangled twist of arms and legs.
Lewis was a big man, but I was no string bean. As starting inside tackle on our single-wing attack high school football team, I was 5-feet, 10-inches tall and weighed in at 220 pounds in those days. Lewis was a strapping man for his age, weighing about 230.
After the splat of bodies, two hulking bodyguards converged on me.
“Let the kid alone, you guys,” Lewis said in that unexcited monotone. “It was an accident.”
Shaking with fear, I fumbled an apology.
Lewis smiled (at least it looked like a smile) and said, “It’s OK, kid.”
He asked my name and hometown. When he learned I lived near Hazleton, Pa., he reminisced about having been there a number of times and rattled off several names of friends.
Nervously, I looked at my wristwatch and explained that I was already late for the start of the band concert, and I feared my director would be even angrier than I suspected he already was.
“We’ll take care of that,” Lewis said.
He escorted me to the ballroom where the band was wrapping up the opening number, “The Washington Post March.”
When it ended a few bars later, Lewis walked me to the director – his arm around my shoulder. “This kid was with me, so don’t give him a hard time about being late,” Lewis told our astonished band