In-person classes resume this summer and fall at Rend Lake College

Face-to-face classroom options will return to Rend Lake College this summer and fall, as Covid-19 vaccines continue to roll out and our area’s outlook improves.

While some classes have had face-to-face learning experiences for their labs up to this point, this shift will now allow for face-to-face lecture as appropriate.

“This is an important step forward as we see some light at the end of the tunnel,” said RLC President Terry Wilkerson. “Our students have been good about helping us keep our Covid numbers down, and it is time to begin offering face-to-face class sections for those who prefer them over online or hybrid options. While we should not let our guard down entirely, returning to face-to-face learning when possible is the right move at this point.”

The past year has been a challenge for students and employees, with the shift a year ago to online learning and remote work. Through the efforts of all involved, the college and its students have been able to keep the learning process moving forward. The silver lining is that the past year has prompted the development of several new online classes and services, including advisement and admission functions, which will remain a benefit to our students for years to come.

Options for summer and fall classes will include the following formats. Not all formats will be available for every class.

Face-to-Face — In-person, in-class learning.
Online — Classes conducted online through Canvas. Students will work through course material independently with communication and direction of RLC faculty.
Remote — Class meetings are held synchronously via Zoom on the day and time indicated on the student’s schedule. The percentage of time spent online vs. remote will vary by course.
Hybrid — Classes meet partially on RLC’s campus and partially online/remote. The percentage of time spent on campus will vary by course. If needed, classes will be transitioned to fully online/remote.
HyFlex — Class meetings will be a combination of traditional, online, and remote. Students are not required to attend traditional or remote class meetings. Students have the option to select how to receive instruction and may choose different modes throughout the semester.
Blended Flex — Class meetings are a combination of instructional modalities and vary by course. Students are provided some flexibility in selecting how they receive instruction, but all three modes of instruction are not available throughout the semester like the hyflex model. Students are not required to attend traditional class meetings on campus but may be required to attend remotely using Zoom.

Rend Lake College is enrolling now for more than 100 degree and certificate programs. In addition to low tuition, we are continuing to waive online course fees this summer and fall. Get started at, or call us at 618.437.5321. Keep an eye on our website for continuing developments.

IHSA Board of Directors announces sports schedule for remainder of 2020-21

The IHSA Board of Directors met for a special board meeting on January 27, 2021, where the Board provided an updated sports schedule and other guidance for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

“We understood the high level of anticipation surrounding today’s announcement, along with the scrutiny that will accompany it,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “Ultimately, the Board adhered to its stated goals throughout the pandemic: providing an opportunity for every IHSA student-athlete to compete safely this year and maximizing opportunities for traditional IHSA spring sports after they lost their entire season a year ago. I recognize that many schools and coaches could likely offer a tweak here or there that would have, in their opinion, made it ‘better’ for their school or sport. Our Board faced an impossible task with a litany of factors. They were conscientious in considering every possibility and I believe their decisions today are a positive step for the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our students. We are excited to channel our energy into creating as many positive experiences for Illinois high school students as we can between now and the end of this extraordinary school year.”

The Board approved the following schedule for the remainder of the school year:

The Board is considering State Series competition for traditional IHSA spring sports only. Dance and cheerleading will be allowed to conduct virtual Sectional and State Final meets, as they will record their performances and submit them to be judged.

“The Board wants to do everything in their power to prevent spring sports from going two consecutive years with no postseason IHSA play,” said Anderson. “There are obviously no guarantees, as risk levels by sport and local region mitigation statuses will factor significantly. Postseason could mean being limited to a Regional or Sectional level of competition, but we have not ruled out the idea of playing a full state tournament in these traditional spring sports if possible. The overwhelming feedback we have heard from athletic directors and coaches was that returning to play in all sports should be the main goal.”

With the exception of football, which requires individuals to participate in practice on 12 different days, all sports will be required to hold practice on seven different days prior to holding a contest. Holding multiple practices on a date does not impact that timeline. If student-athletes transition from basketball or boys swimming & diving into football, they will need to participate in practice on 10 different days prior to their first contest. Winter sport contests could begin as early as today, dependent on when a school’s Region reached the appropriate mitigation status and when they began practices.

The IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) issued a statement reminding all student-athletes, coaches, and schools on the importance of acclimatization:

“The IHSA SMAC reminds member schools that student-athletes may need additional conditioning in order to participate in a full schedule this season. In addition to season/practice requirements, care needs to be given to each student’s individual acclimation as they return to play. When building schedules, attention needs to be given to academic pressure, changes from in-person to remote learning, changes between tiers of mitigation, time spent traveling to events, appropriate time to practice/learn the sport between games, etc. to ensure the student experience truly enhances the academic day.”

IHSA guidelines require all student-athletes to participate in masks (with the exception of swimming & diving, gymnasts on an apparatus and outdoor events where social distancing can occur) and for all game personnel not participating in the contest to also wear masks and adhere to social distancing.

“We still have regions of the state that need to make strides in order be able to play basketball this winter,” said Anderson. “That underscores the importance of our schools following all the mitigations and precautions. We need to maintain a positive trajectory not only to get winter sports going, but to make sure we do not have any regions regress before spring and summer sports have their opportunity. We can all do our part by wearing a mask and socially distancing.”

The Board also agreed to consider other participation opportunities for a given sport, like basketball, if the sport is unable to be played in a specific region.

“We have said from day one that if and when we were allowed to play again this year, the situation would be fluid,” said Anderson. “We don’t feel great about the notion of some schools falling behind based on their Region’s status, but also recognize that we are running out of time and can’t afford to hold back the Regions that can play.”

In October, the Board ruled that students who play sports (football, boys soccer, girls volleyball) that were displaced from their traditional season could participate on high school and non-school teams simultaneously. The Board affirmed this position in Wednesday’s meeting with additional sports moving out of their traditional seasons, and also ruled that girls and boys basketball players will need to cease non-school team participation within seven days of their first high school game.

All sports that are out-of-season can conduct contact days through June 4. Contact days are limited to three days per week per sport with a maximum of six hours of contact per week with no interscholastic competition.

The IHSA Board of Directors issued the following statement on the day’s events:

“Unprecedented circumstances create extraordinary decisions. The IHSA Board of Directors faced one of the most difficult decisions in the Association’s 100-plus year history today. Please know that we did so with great diligence, empathy, and understanding. There were an immense number of factors that went into today’s decisions. We knew there would be obstacles no matter what we decided. Whether those hurdles included overlapping seasons for multi-sport athletes, equity between sports, preseason acclimatization guidelines, the prioritization of spring sports, facility conflicts for schools, officiating, and that is just naming a few. Please know that each potential roadblock was recognized and given consideration. The IHSA membership, like our state, is incredibly large and diverse. Each Board member brought different concerns to the table that impacted their own school or region differently. There was never going to be a one-size fits all solution to playing 25 sports seasons in a little over four months. What did occur was collaboration and camaraderie. Each Board member may not have been able to have all of their specific concerns addressed, but we worked together to produce a schedule and plan that we believe will work for our student-athletes.”

Illinois lawmakers propose plan to allow virtual meetings

SPRINGFIELD — A new proposal filed earlier this month would allow state lawmakers to meet and vote remotely in emergency situations.

Here’s a link to the story at the Southern Illinoisan.

Pritzker says it will take time to reverse accelerated population decline

(The Center Square) – Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he’s focused on reversing the state’s continued outbound migration. But a congressman says high unemployment from the governor’s COVID-19 orders is likely going to compound that.

Here’s a link to the story at Center Square.

One-on-One with Rich Herrin

(Editor’s Note: Legendary basketball coach Rich Herrin passed away December 25, 2020 at his home in Carterville. In 2007, a few months after I launched Southern Illinois Sports Connection Magazine, I sat down at a small table in a Benton restaurant with a tape recorder between us to talk with Coach Herrin about his illustrious career. The story is missing his final coaching stint at Morthland College, but takes an in-depth look at the coach and the man that left an indelible mark on Southern Illinois basketball. My condolences to wife Sue and the Herrin family. — Jim Muir)

The legendary coach talks about his coaching career that has spanned parts of six decades

By Jim Muir

On October 28 the Marion High School board accepted the resignation of Rich Herrin as its basketball coach. The next morning a newspaper headline blared: “Herrin’s resignation marks end of an era.”

Don’t bet on it.

The legendary coach recently granted an interview to SISC where he detailed his lengthy career that spans parts of six different decades. One thing that Herrin clarified quite clearly at the beginning of the conversation is that his coaching epitaph should not be written just yet.

“I’m not saying I’m through coaching because if the right situation opened up I’d consider it, I’d consider it seriously,” said the 74-year-old Herrin. “The thing is I still feel great, I have lots of energy but more than anything else I just love to coach. It’s all I know to do.”

And Herrin has done it well, ringing up a record of 902-367 (.710) during a coaching career that began in 1956. Herrin currently ranks second on the all-time win list behind Dolph Stanley who has 942 victories.

It would be virtually impossible to detail Herrin’s storied career and mention every one of the never-ending list of accolades and awards he’s received. But, Herrin is quick to point out that his long coaching journey has not been a one-man show and emphasizes that there were people at ever juncture of his life that deserve credit for his many accomplishments.

The first is his father, the Rev. Homer Herrin, a Methodist minister and an outstanding athlete in his own right. Herrin says the competitive drive that has been a trademark throughout his career as a player and coach was instilled at an early age by his father. Herrin also says that if he could point to one person responsible for him choosing a career in coaching it would be his father.

“He always set a great example in everything he did,” said Herrin. “He was never one to try and teach us the skills of the game and it still stands out to me that he never once questioned a coach or an official.”

What his father did often say to his two sons (Rich and Ron) still stands out in Herrin’s mind today.

“After every game he would tell us that we could’ve played harder,” said Herrin. “He’d say things like ‘you could have gotten to that loose ball if you’d have dove for it.’ He expected us to work at it and he expected us to play hard. My dad wasn’t what I would call tough on us but when he told you to do something he expected you to do it, there wasn’t any second chances.”

Being the son of a minister the Herrin brothers moved several times during their growing-up years. Herrin was born on April 6, 1933 while the family was living in West Liberty. In succession the Herrin family lived in West Liberty (1933-34), Dieterich (1936-38), St. Francisville (1938-41), Cisne (1941-46) and Bridgeport (1946-52).

Herrin points to the move to Bridgeport, at the beginning of eighth grade year, as one of the defining moments in his life. It was at Bridgeport that Herrin first met Frank “Doc” Hunsaker, a high school coach that Herrin says was “way ahead of his time.” Herrin also noted that at that time Bridgeport had the best gym in Southern Illinois.

“Coach Hunsaker was tough, he was a disciplinarian,” said Herrin. “He was very demanding and if you made a mistake you would probably find yourself sitting next to him on the bench. Many of the philosophies I have as a coach I learned from Coach Hunsaker. Even some of the plays we use today are ones I learned from him. I also learned from Coach Hunsaker that the best way to have success is to outwork other people.”

Herrin also gives much credit to his older brother Ron, who passed away in 1998. Ron Herrin coached at Freeburg, Olney (where the gymnasium is named after him) at Benton and also joined Rich as an assistant at Southern Illinois University.

“Ron always gave me a chance to play with the older kids instead of sending me home, so he gave me a chance to be successful,” said Herrin. “He was good to me and a lot of the knowledge I have about basketball came from Ron.”

After a stellar athletic career at Bridgeport High School where he garnered all conference honors in both basketball and football Herrin went to McKendree where he played basketball for Jim Collie.

“Coach Collie’s philosophy was to make the game exciting and to give players freedom to play,” said Herrin. His philosophy was to win games but to make the game fun while you’re trying to win.”

Herrin said the coaching philosophies he learned under Hunsaker and Collie have been employed at every stop in his coaching career.

While at McKendree Herrin scored more than 1,500 points and pulled down more than 1,000 rebounds during his three-year career. He missed his junior season because of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Herrin still holds the single game scoring mark of 47 – a record that has stood for more than 50 years.

The first stop that Herrin made to try out his own coaching philosophy and skills was at tiny Okawville where he compiled an impressive 95-17 record in four years.

At Okawville Herrin coached twin-tower brothers Dave (6’-7”) and Stan (6’-5”) Luechtefeld who both received all-state honors. Herbert Dingwerth, who later went on to coach the Okawville Junior High program for many years, was the starting guard on Herrin’s first team. All three were underclassmen when Herrin arrived.

“My senior year of college I worked refereeing high school basketball and I called some of the Okawville games so I knew when I took the job that I had some talent,” Herrin said.

Herrin recalled a story where the Luechtefeld’s dad, Sid, came to talk to him shortly after he was hired and said his sons would not be able to play basketball because they had to do daily chores at the family’s dairy farm.

“Sid had tuberculosis and in those days you went to a sanitarium for treatment,” Herrin said. “He told me that Dave and Stan had to do the milking and other chores. So, we worked out an arrangement where we practiced about an hour after school and then they went home. And on the nights we had games they wouldn’t get there until after the junior varsity game had already started.”

Herrin was 23 when he took the Okawville job and said he recalls learning a valuable lesson during his first year of coaching.

“That first year I said that I would treat everybody the same but I realized quickly that you can’t do that because they are all individuals,” said Herrin. “You treat everybody as an individual, treat them fair and evaluate them. Some kids you can get on to and they’ll respond and others you have to back up a little because you can’t drive them. I learned that lesson my first year, I learned it real quick.”

From Okawville Herrin made the move to Benton in 1960 and admits that he expected to stay at the Franklin County school a short time and then move on to a larger high school or college level coaching position.

Herrin recalled a humorous story about his arrival in Benton, specifically comments made by longtime local physician Dr. William Swinney. Rich and his wife Sue arrived in Benton with a mobile home, something that did not go unnoticed by Dr. Swinney, who was known not only as an excellent doctor but also for a keen and sometimes wicked sense of humor. Benton had not had much success in basketball meaning that the coaching carousel turned quite frequently.

“I remember the first time I talked to Dr. Swinney he told me that he didn’t know what kind of coach I’d be but that I was without question the smartest coach that had been hired,” said Herrin. “When I asked him why, he said because I was the first basketball coach to come to town with a house on wheels. I really didn’t think I’d be in Benton that long; I thought I’d move on to a bigger school.”

But a stepping stone and a house on wheels would not be two things in the future for Herrin who spent 25 years at Benton where he compiled an overall record of 521-192.

Perhaps as a prelude of things to come Herrin took his first ever Benton team to the Elite Eight in Champaign and then followed with a return trip to Assembly Hall during the 1965-66 season when the Rangers compiled a record of 31-1. In fact it was during the 1965-66 and 1966-67 season that Herrin and the Rangers literally put Benton on the basketball map.

“The only way I can describe the years at Benton is to say that it was just a very special time in my life,” said Herrin.

During that quarter century Herrin-coached teams would win 52 team championships, 21 regional titles, eight times to the Sweet 16, six times to the Elite Eight, 11 South Seven championships and six championship titles at the prestigious Centralia Holiday Tournament (in seven attempts). Additionally, Herrin coached two high school All-Americans (Rich Yunkus 1967 and Billy Smith 1975), 13 all-state players and had more than 65 players from Benton go on to play college basketball and had more than 20 former players go on to become coaches.

Herrin would not name his top five or even 10 players during his high school coaching days but did say that Rich Yunkus as a high school player and Doug Collins overall are at the top of his list. He listed Billy Smith and Danny Johnson as the best athletes he coached in high school and Keith Tabor as the best pure shooter.

Proving that all good things come to an end in 1985 Herrin took on the monumental challenge of rebuilding the rock-bottom SIU program. Herrin credits Dean Stuck, athletic director at SIU at the time of his hiring, with making the decision to hire him.

“He made the decision, there was a 10-man committee, but the decision was his,” said Herrin. “I probably didn’t have a majority of the votes.”

Herrin said he tackled the SIU job with no clear-cut agenda but with a gritty determination to turn the program around.

“It was a tough job and a difficult challenge but I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge,” Herrin said. “I went after the job maybe as much as anything to see if I could get it and then after I got it I wasn’t sure it was the thing to do.”

Herrin said that unsure feeling about SIU increased dramatically during his coaching debut at the SIU Arena when the Salukis opened the season against Chicago State.

“We were down by 20 in the first half and I remember looking at the scoreboard and thinking, ‘I don’t know how I got in this mess … but I’m sure going to get out of it tomorrow morning.’ We came back and won the game on a last second shot but it was still a long season. Looking back it’s the best move I ever made but in the beginning I wasn’t sure.”

The Salukis would go 8-20 during Herrin’s inaugural season and then improve to 12-17 and 12-16 the next two years before running off six out of seven seasons with 20-plus wins. In all Herrin compiled a record of 225-174 during 15 seasons at SIU with 68 of those losses coming during his first four years.

“We won eight games that first year and won more than a few we shouldn’t have won,” Herrin said. “If we hadn’t came back and won that first game I’m not sure what would have happened.”

Herrin said beating Wichita State on the road that first year still remains one of the highlights of his long career. The Salukis trailed by 11 with less than two minutes to go in the game and scored on six straight possessions while Wichita missed five consecutive free throws.

“That still has to be one of the greatest comebacks in college history,” Herrin said.

Herrin mentions that victory over Wichita State and three consecutive Missouri Valley Conference tournament championships as the highlights of his career at SIU.

Even though Herrin left after back-to-back losing seasons he says he has good memories of his 15-year stay at the Carbondale campus and has enjoyed the success of the program under Bruce Weber, Matt Painter and his former player and current Saluki coach Chris Lowery.

Finally, when pointing to people that has had an impact on his life Herrin points to his wife of nearly 50 years, Sue. The Herrins will celebrate their golden wedding anniversary on Dec. 21st this year.

“I’ve got to give Sue all the credit in the world,” Herrin said. “She’s let me do what I want to do as far as coaching is concerned. Any success I’ve had, Sue is a big part of that.”

Ironically, when asked what he would like his legacy to be Herrin never mentioned basketball.

“I’d like to be remembered as somebody who helped make young men become better people and helped them to be successful in life,” Herrin said.

To date Herrin has coached a total of 1,269 games in his career and says he’s enjoyed every single minute, particularly the 902 victories. Despite all those games, players and different eras Herrin still has an uncanny ability to remember scores, dates and details of games from 30 and 40 years ago.

“When it’s all said and done I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world,” Herrin said. “I’ve had great jobs, with great talent and I’ve made adequate money but most important I’ve got to do what I love to do – coach basketball.”

‘Christmas ended that night …’ – The 69th Anniversary of the Orient 2 mining disaster

By Jim Muir
Christmas traditionally is a time for wide-eyed children, exchanging gifts and festive family get-togethers. For many, though, it also is a time that serves as a grim reminder of the worst tragedy in the history of Franklin County.

On Friday, Dec. 21, 1951, at about 7:35 p.m. a violent explosion ripped through Orient 2 Mine, located near West Frankfort, claiming the lives of 119 coal miners. The tragedy occurred on the last shift prior to a scheduled Christmas shutdown.  News of the tragedy spread quickly from town to town and hundreds of people converged on the mine to check on loved ones and friends.

Rescue workers are pictured with one of the 119 miners killed on Dec. 21, 1951 in the Orient 2 explosion.

Rescue workers are pictured with one of the 119 miners killed on Dec. 21, 1951 in the Orient 2 explosion.

A basketball game was under way at Central Junior High School in West Frankfort, when the public address announcer asked that Dr. Barnett report to Orient 2 Mine, No. 4 Portal, because “there had been a catastrophe.”  There were about 2,000 people at the game, and nearly half of them left with Dr. Barnett.  News of the tragedy and massive loss of life drew nationwide attention. Both Time Magazine and Life Magazine featured accounts of the explosion and newspapers from throughout the country sent reporters to Franklin County to cover the holiday tragedy. Gov. Adlai Stevenson was at the mine the following day along with volunteers from the Red Cross and Salvation Army.  Those who arrived at the Orient 2 Mine immediately after reports of the explosion surfaced had no way of knowing that they would be a part of history and folklore that would be handed down from family to family for decades to come.

A Christmas  Miracle 

Rescue workers began entering the mine within hours of the explosion, clearing gas and searching for survivors.   What they met, however, was the grim reminder about the perils of mining coal and the force of methane-fed coal mine explosions. Locomotives weighing 10 tons were tossed about, timbers a foot thick were snapped like twigs and railroad ties were torn from beneath the rails. Rescue workers began recovering bodies of the 120 missing men shortly after midnight on Dec. 22.   As the hours passed, and body after body was recovered from the mine, it became apparent that it would take a miracle for anybody to survive the explosion and the gas and smoke that resulted.  In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve — 56 hours after the explosion — that miracle happened.

Benton resident Cecil Sanders was found on top of a “fall” barely clinging to life. Authorities theorized that Sanders, by climbing on top of the rock fall, miraculously found a pocket of air that sustained him until rescue workers arrived.  Sanders told authorities later that he was with a group of five men (the other four died) when they actually heard the explosion. He said the men tried to get out of the mine but were driven back by smoke and gas. Sander said later he had resigned himself to the fact that he was going to die, even scribbling a note to his wife and children on the back of a cough drop box. “May the good Lord bless and keep you, Dear wife and kids,” Sanders wrote. “Meet me in Heaven.”

Sanders, who died only a few years ago, reported in a book, “Our Christmas Disaster,” that rescue workers were amazed that he survived.

“My God, there’s a man alive,” Sanders later recalled were the first words he heard as he slipped in and out of consciousness. “They didn’t seem to think it was true. When they got to me I couldn’t tell who they were because they all had on gas masks. Rescue workers came back in a few minutes with a stretcher, gave me oxygen and carried me out of the mine. There’s no question it was a miracle.”

A Christmas  Never Forgotten  

Rescue workers and funeral directors were faced with a grim task during the 1951 Christmas holiday season.  Something had to be done with the scores of bodies that were brought up from the mine. And funeral homes throughout Franklin County — where 99 of the 119 fatally injured miners lived — would have to conduct multiple funerals; in some instances, six or eight per day.  A temporary morgue was set up at Central Junior High School where row after row of bodies lined the gymnasium floor. Brattice cloth, normally used to direct the flow of air in coal mine entries, covered the bodies.  The usual joyous Christmas season turned into a bleak pilgrimage for families from throughout Southern Illinois as they faced the task of identifying the charred remains of the miners. The last body was removed from the mine on Christmas night, completing the work of the rescue and recovery. In all, 252 men were underground at Orient 2 when the explosion took place — 119 died and 133 miners in unaffected areas escaped unhurt.

‘Christmas ended  that night …’     

Nearly every person in Franklin County was affected, either directly or indirectly, by the disaster. For some of those who lost loved ones in the Orient 2 explosion, the events of that Christmas are just as vivid in 2001 as they were in 1951.   Perhaps no story evolved from the tragedy that was more poignant than that of Geneva (Hines) Smith, the 26-year-old mother of two small children, who lost her husband, Robert “Rink” Hines in the explosion.  Smith, who later remarried, still brushes away a tear when she recalls the last words of her young husband before he left for work on that fateful Friday afternoon.

“He held our daughter Joann, she was 3 months old, and he put his face against hers and he said, ‘she looks just like me … doesn’t she?” Smith recalled. “Only a few hours later his sister came to the door and said there had been an explosion … and then we learned later that he’d been killed. The last thing I remember was how happy he was holding his daughter.”

Smith said a cruel irony involving the funeral also played out after her husband’s death.

“There was so many funerals that they had them early in the morning and all day until in the evening,” Smith remembered. “The only time we could have his funeral was at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. That was our fifth wedding anniversary and we got married at 8 p.m. … I’ll never forget that.”

Lyle Eubanks, of Mulkeytown, remembers distinctly his last conversation with his father Clarence, prior to the elder Eubank’s departure for work.

“He walked into the kitchen and got his bucket and then walked back into the living room and sat down on the couch,” Eubanks said. “He talked about it being the last shift prior to the Christmas shutdown and said if he didn’t need the money so bad he wouldn’t go to work that night — that’s the last time I talked to him.”

Eubanks said he identified his father’s body at the morgue.

“There was just row after row of bodies and they were covered with brattice cloth,” he recalled. “You just can’t imagine how horrible of a scene it was. I’ll never, ever forget what that looked like.”

Eubanks said the holiday season for his family and all of Franklin County came to an abrupt halt on Dec. 21, 1951.

“People took down their Christmas trees and outside ornaments after the explosion. It was almost like they didn’t want to be reminded that it was Christmas. Someone came to our house and took the tree, ornaments and all, and put it out behind a building in back of our house,” Eubanks said. ” Christmas in 1951, well, … Christmas ended that night.”


‘It affected everybody …’

By Jim Muir
WEST FRANKFORT — Fifty years ago, Jim Stewart was a 25-year-old coal miner working at the Orient 1 Mine near Orient. His father, Silas, was working in the nearby Orient 2 Mine.  On Dec. 21, 1951, just past 7:30 in the evening, while both were at work, an explosion of methane gas tore through Orient 2 Mine and took the lives of 119 coal miners. Silas Stewart was among the victims.

The elder Stewart was working on the last shift before a scheduled Christmas shutdown.

“I didn’t know about it until I had finished my shift,” Stewart said. “It didn’t matter who you talked to, they had either lost a relative, a neighbor or a friend. It affected everybody.”

In the wake of the tragedy, Stewart remembers the generosity of total strangers.

“Funds were established for the victims and their families and contributions poured in from across the United States. Those were pretty hard times anyway and there was just a great outpouring of help,” he said.

And Stewart remembers the despair of that Christmas.

“It was just a terrible, terrible time,” he said. “I remember that some of the funerals couldn’t be held because there wasn’t enough caskets for all the victims.

“My father was buried on Christmas Day, so there’s never been a Christmas go by that you don’t relive that.”

Jack Bigham of West City was just completing his first year of employment at Orient 2 and was underground when the explosion occurred.

“I was in the 15th East section of the mine working with Roland Black. We hadn’t been in there very long and the power went off, so I called out to see what was wrong,” Bigham said. “They wouldn’t tell us exactly what was wrong, they just told us to walk to the old bottom. I remember when we got to the bottom the power was still off and we had to walk the stairs out. We didn’t find out what was wrong until we got on top.”

Bigham, who is now retired after a 38-year career as a coal miner, went back to work at Orient 2 after it reopened and worked an additional eight years at the mine. He said it was difficult to go back.

“I think about it quite often — of course, even more at this time of the year when it’s near the anniversary,” Bigham said. “I know that I was just very lucky to be in another section of the mine that night.”

Curt Gunter, 57, of Benton, a 25-year veteran of the Southern Illinois coal industry, was 7 years old when his father, Harry “Tater” Gunter, was killed.

“There are things about it that are hazy, like I don’t remember my dad’s funeral at all,” Gunter said. “But the thing that stands out in my mind the most is that, looking back through the eyes of a boy, it seemed like there was a big, black cloud just hanging over everything because so many people were involved. When you grow up with a memory like that at Christmas, well, you don’t ever forget it.”

By Jim Muir

UMWA President John L. Lewis was on the scene at Orient 2 the day after the explosion and the legendary union boss went underground at the ill- fated mine while rescue operations were still under way.

Lewis, known for his no-nonsense approach with coal operators and his untiring devotion to improve conditions for union miners, was visibly shaken when he left the mine. He wasted little time leveling an attack on mining laws that he said needed to be revised.

UMWA president John L. Lewis is pictured leaving the Orient 2 Mine the day after a massive explosion killed 119 miners.

UMWA president John L. Lewis is pictured leaving the Orient 2 Mine the day after a massive explosion killed 119 miners.” width=”300″ height=”432″ /> UMWA president John L. Lewis is pictured leaving the Orient 2 Mine the day after a massive explosion killed 119 miners.[/caption]

“Necessary legislative steps would prevent these recurring horrors,” Lewis said. “They are totally unnecessary and can be prevented. Unless all mines are forced to comply with the safety codes of the Federal Bureau of Mines, the mining industry will continue to be a mortician’s paradise.”

Exactly two months later, on Feb. 21, 1952, Lewis testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Mine Safety, and once again used the Orient 2 explosion as an example that mining laws must be improved.

Lewis said in part: “On Dec. 21, 1951, at the Orient 2 Mine, 119 men were killed. Their average age was 40.9 years old, the youngest was 19 and the oldest was 64. Aside from the human values that were destroyed in this explosion, the community and the state suffered a monetary loss in the contribution that those men would have made had they been permitted to live; or if their lives had been safeguarded; or if one coal company had carried out the provisions of the existing federal code of safety, promulgated by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. That is all, in the judgment of experienced mining men, that would have been necessary to have saved the lives of those 119 men and avoided the disruption of the lives of 175 children growing up to manhood and womanhood.”

Lewis didn’t mince words when he spoke before Congress offering a stinging rebuke about mining laws and practices.

“The Orient explosion was preventable, preventable in the judgment of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, as testified here by its able director. The Orient explosion was preventable in the judgment of every man in the industry that has knowledge of sound mining practices. So, the record runs on, explosion after explosion through the years. Management was at fault in the West Frankfort explosion. It failed to take proper precautions in the face of abnormal conditions that intensified the hazard. Management didn’t take those steps. As a matter of fact, I think it is conceded by those qualified to speak on the subject that every mine explosion and disaster we’ve had in our country since 1940 would have been prevented if the existing code of safety had been enforced.”

The legendary union boss concluded his comments with a powerful and graphic description of what took place in Franklin County in the aftermath of the explosion.

“And the mining industry continues to be a mortician’s paradise. I just watched 119 funerals in two days in Franklin County – 119 funerals in two days! Can you imagine anything more heart-rendering, more soul- stirring? 119 funerals in that little county in two days!  They went to work, the last shift before Christmas … and many of them were brought home to their loved ones in rubber sacks – rubber sacks! Because they were mangled, and shattered and blown apart and cooked with methane gas, until they no longer resembled human beings. And the best the mortician could do was put them in rubber sacks with a zipper. And then, for a Christmas present in Franklin County, 119 families could look at rubber sacks in lieu of their loved ones.”




The tight-knit communities of Sesser and Valier are grief-stricken after the death of 14-year-old Luke Thery

By Jim Muir

The upcoming holiday season and an unseasonably warm and sunny December week has done nothing to lessen the sadness and grief gripping the small, tight-knit communities of Sesser and Valier as friends and students try to come to grips with the tragic death of 14-year-old Luke Thery.

Thery, a popular freshman at Sesser-Valier High School, died Wednesday afternoon from injuries sustained in a truck-four-wheeler crash at the intersection of East Center Road and Peach Orchard Road, located south of Sesser.

Thery was traveling south on East Center Road and struck a pickup truck that was traveling east on Peach Orchard Road. Thery was pronounced dead at the scene.

Jerry Travelstead, a Sesser native and S-V graduate who now serves as superintendent at Pinckneyville No. 204 Grade School, is youth leader at Valier First Baptist Church where Thery attended.

Travelstead said he has known Thery all his life – literally.

“I really can say that I’ve known him all his life, because I remember when he was born,” said Travelstead. “Luke came from a great family and his parents are outstanding people.”

Travelstead said Thery was a three-sport athlete, playing football, baseball and running track at S-V. He added that Thery “had never met a stranger” and was “friends with everybody.”

“He was a red-head and I always thought that his red hair matched his outgoing personality,” said Travelstead. “He had this great big personality and he liked to share it with people. Luke liked to talk and he talked to everybody. He was just a fun kid to be around, he loved riding four-wheelers, he liked to act goofy and have fun and he was 100 percent all-boy. Luke was just a joy to be around and he was certainly a leader and not a follower. This is a real tragedy for the community and the S-V school.”

S-V District Superintendent Jason Henry issued a statement Friday morning concerning the impact on the school.

“We are hurting,” said Henry. “Luke was a fantastic young man. He was high-spirited, energetic, and a fierce competitor with a relentless work ethic. Underneath his mental toughness was a caring, gentle soul. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Thery family at this time.”

Henry said Thery’s death is doubly-hard for school personnel, as his mother, Jennifer, is a veteran math teacher in the District.

“Our students and staff have been shaken, but we’re strong,” said Henry. “We realize that, although we don’t understand why these things happen, we must stay positive and focus on supporting and encouraging Luke’s family. We’re trusting that this untimely accident will somehow strengthen our school, families, and community for years to come. That’s what Luke’s family would want us to do, and we’re going to honor that to the best of our ability.”

Henry said the school will have extra counseling personnel available for students and staff members as needed through its partnerships with Franklin-Jefferson Special Education District, the Sesser-Valier Ministerial Alliance, and Centerstone.

Sesser Mayor Jason Ashmore called the fatal accident “just a terrible tragedy.” Ashmore said much of the community revolves around what happens with students and school activities, noting the impact and sadness that Thery’s death has had on the entire community.

“Certainly, it impacts the S-V students and the school family, but it also has a big impact on the community as a whole,” Ashmore said. “Luke was friendly and outgoing and well-loved by everyone. At a time like this I want to encourage everyone to lift up this family in prayer during their time of need. I am proud to be a part of a community that comes together to help, like the residents of Sesser and Valier always do.”

The Rev. Kevin Bradley is pastor of the Valier First Baptist Church, where Thery has attended since he was born.

“Luke was just a fine young man and he didn’t just attend church, he was active in the church,” said Rev. Bradley. “I will always remember how much he loved our youth group and our annual Christmas pageant.”

Rev. Bradley said his main focus will be to encourage those grieving to not focus on “why this accident happened.”

“There are no words that we can say that will ease the pain of this family, but we just have to hold them up in prayer,” Rev. Bradley said. “We know that Luke is with the Lord and we have to hang on to the promises that the Bible gives us that our hope is in Jesus Christ.”

Travelstead said Thery and his son, Landon, were good friends, adding another layer of grief to the situation for him. Travelstead recalled another December death nearly 26 years ago involving a Sesser teenager that will forever be seared in his memory. Travelstead was best friends and neighbors with Brandon Dame, who was critically injured in a two-car crash south of Sesser on December 27, 1994. The 16-year-old Dame died the following day at a Cape Girardeau hospital.

“I am not a trained pastor or a grief counselor, but the best words I can offer to the hundreds of young people that are hurting right now comes from personal experience,” said Travelstead. “I lost my best friend, Brandon, in a car wreck when I was 15 years old, and I can tell these young people that they are never going to get over this completely. It will affect them the rest of their lives. I know that firsthand.”

Travelstead was choked with emotion when talking about the way he will approach Thery’s death with young people.

“My advice will be to make your life count and do things and accomplish things that would make Luke proud,” said Travelstead. “If there is a lesson to be learned in this, it’s to tell your family and friends how important they are to you. Why wait … before it’s too late. I learned that lesson the hard way at age 15, and I decided right then I wasn’t going to waste any opportunity to tell people I love and appreciate them. I will miss Luke dearly and so will hundreds of his friends and family.”

Graveside services for Luke will be on Sunday December 13, 2020 at 2 p.m. at the Union Primative Baptist Cemetery located north of Sesser by the old Inland Steel Mine with Brother Kevin Bradley officiating. Visitation will be on Saturday from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the Brayfield-Gilbert Funeral Home in Sesser and on Sunday from 9 a.m. until 1:45 p.m. at the funeral home.

The day I killed Lewis Cushman on the front page of the Benton Evening News

Editor’s Note: (This column appeared in the Southern Illinoisan on February 10, 2004 and it remains to this day one of my all-time favorites.)
Lewis Cushman died last week and even though I read the obituary in the newspaper I still attended the wake just to make sure.

I’m certainly not making light of the matter, but I have every reason to be a little bit apprehensive about the death of Lewis Cushman. Medically speaking Cushman has only expired once, but journalistically speaking he’s died twice and the first time I was responsible.

The 84-year-old Cushman and his wife Angie ran Benton Baking Company for more than three decades, an old fashioned bakery that made great homemade bread and an assortment of other fine pastries.

Several years ago when I was working at the Benton Evening News I wrote a story about the Cushman’s daughter Connie (Peterson) who is married and lives in central Illinois. The story revolved around a prestigious award that Peterson and her husband had won on their farm/ranch and a news article that had appeared in a national magazine.

I conducted the interview over the phone and still recall that it was a story that was easy to write, a feel-good feature that are frequently in newspapers about a small town girl making good. The only problem I experienced with the story was that I forgot to ask Connie Peterson if both her parents were still alive.

After several unsuccessful attempts to reach the Petersons and the Cushmans and with a deadline bearing down on me I conferred with Danny Malkovich, managing editor, and we decided that Angie was alive but that Lewis had passed away a couple of years earlier. So, the story ended by saying: “Connie Peterson is the daughter of Angie and the late Lewis Cushman.”

The day the story ran I was out of the office in the early afternoon and returned around 3 p.m., about an hour after the paper hit the street. The first thing I noticed was a note on my desk written in bold letters that were underlined: ‘CALL LEWIS CUSHMAN!” The phone number was listed, also in large print.

I can still recall the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and the cold sweat on my forehead as I dialed Cushman’s number to take the scolding and the heat that I knew was forthcoming.

To my amazement though, Lewis and Angie Cushman proved to be good-natured and took my mistake quite well, even making a few jokes about it. They did ask me to correct the mistake the next day, though.

Using a lead I’m certain has been used many times by other harried newspaper writers the following day’s paper had a front page correction that began: “Much like Mark Twain, news of the death of Lewis Cushman is greatly exaggerated…”

Perhaps one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard came a few days later when Angie Cushman called to tell me about the reception Lewis received from the elderly gentlemen that he drank coffee with every morning at a local restaurant.

She said the second Lewis walked in one gentleman commented about the speed at which he’d returned to life after his demise was reported a day earlier in the local newspaper.

“You know Lewis, it took Jesus three days to resurrect,” he said. “But you made it back for coffee the next morning.”

Since that forgettable day 10 years ago I’ve seen the Cushmans on countless occasions and we always shared a laugh about the glaring mistake that I made. And in the event that I would see Angie without Lewis I would always inquire, with somewhat of an exaggerated worried tone, how her husband was feeling.

“Lewis is ALIVE and doing quite well,” Angie would always reply with a wide smile.

While I’ll readily admit that I’ve made an occasional mistake with dates, places, and times during my tenure as a writer, reporting the erroneous death and subsequent resurrection of Lewis Cushman remains my biggest blunder.

And while it might be a small token, I hope it’s some source of comfort to readers to know that in the event that I mistakenly kill you on the front page one day … I can bring you back to life within 24 hours.

I stood at Lewis Cushman’s casket last week only a few minutes before the start of his funeral and talked with Angie and her children and we once again recalled and shared a laugh about that infamous day more than a decade ago when I reported his very premature death.

After I exited the church that day the thought crossed my mind that all those laughs and smiles through the years that I enjoyed with the Cushmans happened solely because they had a forgiving nature and a keen sense of humor. If they had blasted me and held a grudge, all those smiles and friendly greetings and even this column would never have happened. We should all be so fortunate when we pass on that people would remember us for those two qualities.

As an epitaph to this story I feel that I should say thanks, Lewis, for taking it easy on me after I erroneously reported your death on the front page of the local newspaper. But more importantly thanks for a classic story for the ages and the warm memories and the many smiles we shared.

82 employees, residents of Choate Mental Health test COVID-19-positive in past 10 days

ANNA — In the past 10 days, 82 employees and residents of Choate Developmental Center in Anna have tested positive for COVID-19, officials said Wednesday.

Here’s a link to the story at the Southern Illinoisan.

Reform group says move to hold Madigan accountable is above politics

(The Center Square) – While Democrats say Republicans are playing politics with the House investigation into Speaker Michael Madigan, a group promoting reforms said the issue is much bigger than that.
Here’s a link to the story at Illinois News Network.

Benton, West Frankfort, Illinois News | Franklin County News