Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 28, 2012

Two Tazewell County coal miners share story with Gov. Mitt Romney

By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

ABINGDON, Va. — On Oct. 5, as thousands of people were waiting in the parking lot at Carter Machinery in Abingdon, Va., there was about a 25-minute pause between when U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., finished his speech, and Kevin Crutchfield, chief executive officer of Alpha Natural Resources walked out on the stage to introduce Mitt Romney, Republican Party candidate for president.

As the audience applauded the candidate, Romney prefaced his remarks by saying that he had just been talking to a couple of coal miners who were recently laid off from their jobs. He said one was struggling to support his family, and the other was working in the mines to achieve his dream of owning a farm. Romney didn’t mention their names, but he shared a little of their stories before he mentioned the first presidential debate, and the crowd responded with a roar. As it would happen, both of the coal miners Romney talked to are Tazewell County, Va., residents — Jamie Lester and Dustin Altizer.

Jamie Lester spent the first 10 days after getting laid off from Consol Energy’s Buchanan No. 1 Mine visiting with creditors and asking them to be patient with him while he looked for work. On Sept. 15, he set up his own friend of coal booth at the Cedar Bluff, Va., Heritage Festival, and talked to people about his predicament.

“I actually put together my own coal rally,” Lester, 28, said. “Delegate (James W.) ‘Will’ Morefield (R-Tazewell), and (vice chair of the Tazewell County, Va., Board of Supervisors) John Absher found out about it, and wanted to hear my story. They called my wife (Heather Lester) on the Thursday before the Heritage Festival and I met them both. Delegate Morefield called a few days later and asked me if I wanted to tell my story to Mitt Romney at the political rally in Abingdon, Va. He asked me if I could take a couple friends along with me, so I asked Dustin Altizer, Jeff Bailey and my wife.”

Jamie Lester’s story doesn’t begin and end at the Buchanan No. 1 Mine. He has had many personal highlights through the years that are pretty cool by any measurement. He was the center on the Honaker High School football team on a line that protected Heath Miller, the Tigers’ All-state, star quarterback who excelled at the University of Virginia and was the first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005.

“We had a great running back too,” Lester said of Neal Staples. “Our offensive line opened holes for both of those guys.” By the time Miller signed with the Steelers, Lester, who was a junior when Miller graduated, was married and working for the Virginia Department of Corrections at the Bland Correctional Center.

Jamie and his wife, Heather Lester, have been married 10 years. These days, she stays home to raise their 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. After he finished high school, Jamie Lester found that he could make a difference as a correctional officer.

“It was the most rewarding job I ever had,” he said. “I could talk with inmates and try to help them straighten out their lives. When they listened to what I had to say, I thought I was making a difference.” The money was short, though, so Lester applied for a job at Jewell Smokeless Coal Co., in Buchanan County where he worked two years, staying there until he got a job with Consol in December of 2011. Although Consol has called back 400 of the coal miners that were laid off on Sept. 5, Lester wasn’t among them.

“Consol had a mini-job fair here,” he said. “We might have to move to Pennsylvania, but I’m going to stay with Consol if I can. It pays enough so my wife can stay with the kids. We’re not from a big family or a well-off family. Our families will help, but there’s only so much they can do.”

Dustin Altizer, 25, is one of the 400 coal miners at Consol’s Buchanan No. 1 Mine who will be going back to work on Nov. 5, but he and his wife, Jessica, are worried about the future of coal mining. He’s a fourth generation coal miner who started working at Buchanan No. 1 in 2008. He grew up in Rosedale, Va., graduated from Lebanon High School in Lebanon, Russell County, Va., and attended Southwest Virginia Community College for a while before heading into the coal mines. He understands coal mining and operates a roof bolter for Consol, but there’s more to Altizer’s dreams than just mining coal.

Dustin and Jessica Altizer have a 70-acre farm near Bandy, Va., a small Tazewell County, Va., town about halfway between Amonate and Cedar Bluff. The Altizers raise Angus and Gelbvieh cattle, and Jessica Altizer also works as a pharmacy technician.

“When I started in the mines, my dream was to buy a farm,” Altizer said. “If I don’t have my coal job, we couldn’t afford a farm. If it hadn’t been for Jessica’s job, I don’t know what we would have done after we got laid off in September.

“I was one of the ones who attended President Obama’s political rally at Lebanon High School four years ago when he said he was for coal,” Altizer said. “I don’t get the feeling that he feels like that any more.”

“I was raised with Democrat beliefs,” Lester said. “I’m not going to say I’m a Democrat or a Republican, but I’m going to vote for the man who’s going to support coal.”

Lester called Altizer on Thursday, Oct. 4, about going to the rally at Carter Machinery in Abingdon to meet former Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I was at the cattle market in Tazewell, Va., when he called,” Altizer said. “The Secret Service ran a background check on me. We went down there at 9 a.m. the next morning and drove past all the people who were waiting in line to get in there. After we went through the security check, they put us in a room where we waited for him.”

Both Lester and Altizer remarked about the fact that the event organizers had bottles of Cherry Coke waiting for Romney when he arrived. “They told us that was his favorite drink,” Altizer said. “They had Cokes and water there for everyone else.”

“The Secret Service guys were outside the door like hall monitors in case we needed to go to the bathroom,” Lester said.

During their meeting with Romney, both men made the same observation. “He seems like a down-to-earth guy,” Altizer said. “I told him about my dream to own a farm and said that was why I had my coal job. When he first came out, that was the first thing he said that I was trying to hold on to my farm. I believe I made an impression on him because he mentioned me and my wife.”

“He let us know he’s human,” Lester said. “He cracked a joke about the Cherry Coke he had waiting for him, then we talked about how things were going for us. He didn’t talk much. Mostly, he just listened to me, then he listened to Justin.

“We have our house up for sale and we’ve been trying to get some food assistance,” Lester said. “I know that God’s going to take care of me. He wouldn’t have brought me this far just to drop me off. While we were talking, he let us know that he was listening to what we had to say. I knew there were a lot of people outside waiting to hear him. I saw them as we were driving up to Carter Machinery.”

Altizer couldn’t go to the Coal Rally at Poplar Gap Park near Grundy, Va., last Sunday because of a family event, but Lester was among the crowd of 7,500 people who attended that event.

“I even got to go inside Charlie Daniels’ bus and meet him. I’d say that everything would be going pretty good if I just had a job,” Lester said.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com