Lives changed after ‘chance’ parking lot meeting

I read the obituary and then I read it a second time more slowly. The name of the deceased was Eugene Thomas Moroni and as is always the case the obit told a brief chronological story about his life.

After reading the obit, paying particular attention about Moroni’s long history as senior vice president with Old Ben Coal Company, I laid the paper aside and thought about the countless times I’d heard his name mentioned. You see, as a kid growing up in a very middle-class, blue-collar family the name ‘Gene Moroni’ was revered and almost legendary around my house.

Let me explain.

As Southern Illinois residents are aware, coal mining has always been a cyclical industry, which means working as a coal miner has always been a feast-or-famine occupation.

My dad began his mining career in the late 1940s and in those ‘famine’ days tried to earn a living working two and three days a week at mines in Buckner, Coello and Valier. In 1956 Old Ben Coal Company started construction on Mine 21, located east of Sesser, and many miners believed a ‘feast’ era was about to begin.

The new multi-million dollar mine began hoisting coal in January 1960 and my dad was one of hundreds desperately trying to land a job there. I can recall many times sitting in the backseat of an old car at the Old Ben office on West Main Street where Benton City Hall was previously located, while my dad waited in the lobby to try and talk to somebody about getting a job.

After numerous failed attempts my dad came up with a plan that proves necessity truly is the mother of invention. Realizing that the Old Ben officials he was hoping to see were leaving the building at day’s end through another exit, my dad moved his job-seeking vigil to a parking lot at the rear of the building. I’ve heard him recall the story countless times.

The first person my dad encountered in the parking lot that day was Gene Moroni and he approached the vice president of Old Ben Coal and, point-blank, asked him for a job.

Moroni’s answer was probably the standard line he used on the throngs of men seeking his help.

“Do you have an application on file,” Moroni asked my dad.

My dad’s answer was one of quickest-thinking lines I’ve heard.

“Yes, I have an application on file … but I don’t need an application on file, I have a family to take care of … I need a job,” my dad told him.

As I write this, in my mind’s eye I can literally see the exchange that took place that spring day in 1960 between a successful mining executive and a man looking for a job to provide for his wife and four children.

I can let my mind wander and imagine that maybe Moroni looked my dad straight in the eye and tried to get a read on him or maybe he even considered my dad’s size – he was 42 years old and a big strapping man in those days. I’m more prone to believe that Moroni looked at my dad’s desire and his heart and realized that a man who would spend the afternoon standing in a parking lot trying to find somebody … anybody … to talk with about a job would surely make a good employee.

“Call my secretary in the morning and have her schedule you for a physical,” Moroni told him. “I’m going to give you a job.”

The significance of that meeting might not have been apparent to either man that afternoon, but it marked a turning point in my dad’s life and a turning point for his family. Mine 21 was called the ‘golden hole’ by miners and proved to be the best-ever Old Ben mine. My dad went from working two or three days a week to working six and seven days per week and everything he attained materially in life came after that meeting with Moroni.

Perhaps it was his attempt to pay Moroni back for giving him a job or maybe it was something in his make up – maybe it was a combination of both — but my dad would not miss a shift of work. He told Moroni he needed a job that day in 1960 and then for 25 years he went to work every day — regardless.

It’s my opinion that Old Ben Coal and my dad both benefited greatly because of Moroni’s decision that day.

Obituaries are adequate and purposeful when describing the highlights of a person’s life but they fail to reveal the real fabric of that person.

Today I would like to add a footnote to Gene Moroni’s obituary.

Along with the relevant facts that were listed Moroni should also be remembered as a man that helped shape and define the Southern Illinois coal industry, a good man that kept his word, a man of character and a person that undoubtedly possessed an uncanny knack for ‘sizing-up’ a man.

And most importantly it should be remembered that Moroni was admired by many working coal miners – particularly one he met by chance in a parking lot 45 years ago.

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