There was no mistaking Tony Fiorino for anything but a coal miner when he stepped out of the crowd to shake the hand of presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the afternoon of Oct. 19, 1932.
His face was blackened by dust kicked up from 12 hours of shoveling coal. A pick was on his shoulder and his lunch pail hung from his arm. His work coat was torn and on his head was an old carbide lamp, the kind lit with a match.
A photographer following the Roosevelt motorcade took a picture of that handshake, but no one bothered to record the miner's name. No one could have known that the photo, showing Roosevelt at his beaming best, hand-in-hand with a Depression-tattered but still vigorous American worker, was to become one of the more famous photos of the era.
So, while Roosevelt drove on down winding Rte. 40 on his way to Pittsburgh and yet another speech and an election victory that would shape American lives for generations, Tony Fiorino turned and walked out of history the same way he walked in, down the highway for a mile or so to his home in Elm Grove.
Just a month short of 43 years later he would be dead. The old timers who avoided this often violent and drunken man would bury him as one of their own and the union would pay for what the death benefits didn't cover because he only had a dollar to his name. His landlady would throw a small cardboard box filled with all his belongings into the trash bin. And then only the image of his begrimed face would remain, smiling brashly across half a century.
There are still a few old miners in Elm Grove who recognize Tony in that famous picture. All are in their mid-60s. Most live in the same simple houses that have been balancing precariously on grizzled hillsides above the mines for 50 years and more. They still gather afternoons and evenings at Wakim's Sportsman's Club for a game of club euchre and to sip beer, peppering the smoky air with friendly obscenities.
But almost without realizing it, both they and their community of just over 5,000 people, part of the city of Wheeling, W. Va., have become as much of a period piece as Fiorino's photo. The signs of this are everywhere: in the aging faces, in the rusting coal cars idled since the last mine closed down two years ago, in the local union office where the files of dead miners now outnumber those of the living. But most of all, you can see the signs on the walls of Elm Grove's homes and businesses, where pictures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, sometimes, John F. Kennedy, still hang as if they never had left office.
People here never forget their friends. And Roosevelt was a friend. In their eyes, the best they ever had. He helped make it possible for them to unionize, they say, and saw that they received decent wages.
In Elm Grove, the past lives on like an old grainy picture.
Wakim's is its shrine. Tony Fiorino used to drink there, until one day back in the 1960s, about 10 years after he retired, he pulled a knife on owner Tom Wakim and Wakim threw him out. It's still where retired miners like Arthur Isaly, 63, hold forth.
"They would never kill the rats in the mines," Isaly says. "See, they would give you a warning. If they'd start scurryin' around, you'd know there was gonna be a cave-in. They'd throw bread and give 'em something to eat to keep 'em around, you know."
Two elbows down, Chester Gostyla, 64, is quizzing Wakim, 61. "Your dad put that up, didn't he?" he asks, pointing over the bar to an old varnished photo of Roosevelt on board a ship with Churchill.
"Oh, he was a Roosevelt man!" replies Wakim, his dark eyes flashing. "You couldn't touch that!" He takes the picture down and studies it in the dim light.
"Hell!," snaps Gostyla, who is the spitting image of actor Ernest Borgnine, "round here, I think he got about 175 percent of the vote."
Everyone in this tiny bar tasted the bitterness of the Depression and so they speak with reverence of those who helped others, no matter how small the kindness. Gostyla leans back against the bar and looks at the floor. "You know, during the Depression, when Tom's dad operated here, he would put a package of Bugler tobacco here in a bowl with a package of papers. Anyone come in could roll a cigarette."
Ziggy Yzenski, 68, entered the mines when he was 19. "I was gonna finish school but my dad was hurt in the mines so I had to go in." That was 1933. Yzenski has been a union official since 1938, but there is no longer any organizing to be done. Instead, most of his time is spent looking after the retired Elm Grove miners. There are so few of them that Yzenski says he'll probably have to close down the old union local for good soon.
"They used to get paid 50 cents a car for the coal they dug out of those mines," Yzenski says. "Maybe they'd make $5 to $6 a day . That was if they were lucky and there was coal to be hauled out.
"Each one of those cars carried a ton-and-a-half or two tons. The check weighman would gob each car verify that it contained usable coal , but if the coal was declared dirty coal, then you had to come back on Sundays and work 6 to 12 hours for nothing. If you wanted to keep your job, you did it.
"My father left for work when it was dark and it was dark when he returned. Six days a week."
John Wolodkin, 71, and his wife Anne, 67, remember the labor battles of the late 1920s in Elm Grove. That was when the Elm Grove Coal Company, owned by the Valley Camp Coal Company of Pennsylvania, brought in scab miners, they say. Wolodkin was shot during one strike, and his wife says she was beaten up on the picket lines.
"Valley Camp was just about the dirtiest coal company around," says Wolodkin. "They brought in scabs to work by train and they had a place called the bull pen down near the train station where they kept them. They had guns all over.
"I heard in one mine that when a guy got killed, they just laid him up on the gob trash rock until quittin' time. The company wouldn't let them take the guy out until their shift was over."
The length of the miners' memories distresses Herman Jefferson, 68, who worked for Valley Camp, mostly in the personnel department, for 46 years beginning in 1933. "Back in those days, it was the survival of the fittest," he says passionately. "We did some things that we had to do. And so we stayed in business. Other companies, like Costanzo and Hitchman, they went out of business.
"But these miners here, they've got to forget about all that, because Valley Camp kept on. They had jobs when a lot didn't. We had 567 men and we didn't need them but we staggered the shifts so they all had work.
"I can understand how they feel, but they are wrong."
The old miners speak with affection of Jefferson, even though he was a company man. "He looked after the men as best he could," says Yzenski. "If there was something he could do, he would do it." Anyway, Yzenski says, today the company treats its miners well, though both labor and capital always keep a wary eye on one another.
But men like John Andenoro, 63, cannot forget. "The coal company used to take $10 or $12 out of your paycheck to pay rent for a house you were supposedly living in. But you never lived in it. I remember my dad would cry when he had to pay for a house he didn't even know where it was. I remember him crying."
The men are playing euchre, and Gostyla is losing. You can tell because his curses hammer off the walls while everyone else laughs. When they aren't talking about cards, the men talk of the past--Roosevelt, the mine bosses, the brutish work, the Saturday night celebrations that always seemed to leave at least one man dead. That was just the way life went then, they agree.
"Tony Fiorino was a typical miner," Andenoro says after studying his cards. "Don't let anyone tell you different.