By Doug Magill
For the coal-miner’s daughter from West Virginia, the decision to come to Cleveland was made in an afternoon.
Her delight at telling me the story brought an almost girlish giggle to Carrol Komac. She cackled as she told me that her choice to come here was “either that or become a bum!”
In 1950 Cleveland was a land of opportunity, where the children of struggling farmers and coal miners came to find their fortunes, and futures. The word immigrant didn’t have the same connotation as it does today, and the post-World War II migration from mostly southern states helped build the mighty manufacturing hubs of the Midwest.
Carrol grew up in Thomas, West Virginia – a company coal mining town. Her father had worked in the mines and simultaneously served as the town constable and was a city councilman. She knew everyone in the city, and loved the hills and hollows of the rugged area. A good athlete, she wasn’t able to compete in high school because she had to work but she often went hunting with her father. She once took a buck that was a state record.
She found her options were limited after high school, and she took every odd job she could to save money, knowing “there wasn’t any future in Thomas, West Virginia. I had to go somewhere else. I delivered show bills for the theater all over the hills and the dales and everything. And I got to go the show for free.”
He drawl framed in a slightly raspy voice had been softened over the years, but her smile went from her chin to her eyes as she talked about working the ice cream machine at the candy store, and also working at the coal company store – the B and L. “I got 30 some dollars a week at the store,” she said. “That was pretty good money”.
Her future husband, Tom, was also from Thomas, and left to attend Ohio State. He returned for school vacations and visited Carrol at the candy store, trying to flirt and get her to give him some ice cream. Raised in a family that valued honesty, she refused because she would not cheat the owners, even from a little ice cream.
She became open to the idea of moving to Cleveland when a high school friend moved here to work at the A&P supermarket near Nela Park. Her friend’s boss told her “You know any more hillbillies down there want a job bring ’em up.”
And then Skeeter, another of Carrol’s girlfriends from high school had a husband that had moved to Cleveland and she wanted a traveling companion so she could go join him. She kept pestering Carrol until one day she responded, “I can’t go, I’m not ready!”
Skeeter persisted. “And she wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Carrol recalled, “ and I said, well, ‘I’ll tell you that if you talk to my mother and my mother thinks I can be ready by the 3 o’clock bus I’ll go.'”
Carrol laughed with delight at the memory. “And my mother said I could! She wanted me to have a future and said she would get me ready so I couldn’t back out then. I left before my dad got home from the mines.”
Staying with her high school friend, Carrol got a job at the A&P as well. She was diligent and saved some money, hoping to be able to have enough to go back to visit her parents once in a while. Still, the change was daunting. Carrol had never before been to a doctor, and depended on strangers to help her navigate the complexities of riding the bus. Every day was a challenge, as the urban environment in which she now found herself was a different universe.
Tom graduated from Ohio State with a degree in physical education. Unable to land a teaching job, he found work doing odd jobs in the labs of Republic Steel.
Twelve days after arriving in Cleveland from Thomas, Tom took Carrol, on the bus, to the Ballroom at Euclid Beach and indirectly asked her to marry him. It took a few weeks before she understood that is what he was trying to ask her. Forging ahead, she told him if what she heard was true then they should do it. They used the few dollars that she had saved to pay for the ceremony, and honeymooned in Sandusky.
Tom grew in his job, eventually becoming an engineer and an international expert in coke oven construction and operations. He and his wife raised two children in Garfield Heights. They would travel often back to visit their families, but came to know Cleveland as their home.
Carrol and Tom were drawn to Cleveland because of the prospect of opportunity, and the understanding that there were friends in the city who could help them. Their needs were simple, and the jobs that they took were at the bottom of the ladder of labor. It didn’t matter to them, as they just wanted a chance, and their upbringing of hard work, honesty, and thrift forged in the coal-mining town of Thomas were what they hoped would help them succeed.
Today, the migration is away from Cleveland. The beginning rungs of opportunity are not to be found here. There are lots of grand schemes to develop fuel cells and green energy and medical marts and complex technological products. But, the beginning for the majority of people are the jobs in grocery stores, dry cleaners, gas stations, and unskilled positions in plants and warehouses. So perhaps our focus should be lower, and broader.
Carrol and Tom Komac are the kind of migrant Cleveland needs now. Thrifty, hard-working, honest people who bring stability and grace to the neighborhoods they populate. If we can’t attract them, then Cleveland will never achieve the renaissance we desperately hope for. We need to find a way to make this area a place where people like Carrol and Tom can again find their future.
Doug Magill is a former IT executive and consultant who does freelance writing and voice-over work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org