By Whitney Burdette - email
Though he had other plans at first, it was natural for L. Newton Thomas to enter the coal industry.
Thomas, who was born in Charleston and spent most of his life in Carbon, on Cabin Creek, came from a family of coal miners. Although he received a degree in civil engineering from Cornell University with plans of entering the construction industry, seeing how hard coal miners work inspired him to change his plans.
"I like to work with people, I like to work with teams," Thomas said.
Thomas served a few years in the U.S. Air Force, including one year in Korea, before leaving the military. It was then when he interviewed several leaders in the coal mining industry. He "was impressed with the character and culture of that industry, so I decided to go into the industry."
Thomas started his career as an underground miner. He joined the union and built relationships that enabled him to work his way up through the ranks. That was 1953, when the challenges of working in and operating a coal mine were many.
"Coal mining is very challenged and project-oriented," Thomas said. "When you complete one coal mine, you open another one. We were building a company then and increasing the number of mines, so that kept me well engaged, and I traveled throughout other parts of the country acquiring leases with the intention of growing the business."
Leading an Industry Into the Future
Thomas went on to develop ITT Carbon Industries, which became one of West Virginia's most successful coal operations. Thomas and other leaders in the company used technology developed in foreign countries to modernize coal operations in the Mountain State. ITT Carbon is credited with being the first coal operation to use longwall mining, a technique still used today.
"It had been actively pursued in England and Germany and other countries," Thomas said of longwall mining. "It's very expensive equipment, but we took the risk and invested in that in order to keep the coal company competitive."
ITT produced mostly metallurgical coal, used by steel producers.
But modernizing coal mines in the mid-20th century had its own challenges. Thomas said the mining industry at that time was "very competitive."
"There were a lot of small operations that affected the pricing of coal, so you had to continue to try to be more and more efficient. We went and acquired a smaller company which was hand loading. It was a challenge to mechanize that mine, equip it with modern machinery and train the miners and employees to use that machinery," Thomas said.
"That was part of my job. I had learned to operate most of the equipment in the mines and was actively engaged in that, so the challenge was to continue to become more and more efficient, and of course improve the safety record. The mining industry had a reputation for being a hazardous industry, and we were constantly trying to improve the safety of the workers and avoid serious accidents."
Giving Back to the Community
Thomas retired from his post as senior vice president a few years ago. But retirement hasn't been a time of rest and relaxation. Thomas remains busy with a host of nonprofit organizations, committees and boards. He currently presides as chairman and director of The Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.
But the Clay Center isn't the only organization Thomas has been part of. He served as president and director the United Way of the Kanawha Valley, the Education Alliance of West Virginia and the Buckskin Council of Boy Scouts of America. He was chairman of the Air Pollution Control Commission and of Edgewood Summit Inc., a non-profit continuous care retirement community. He also served as chairman and trustee of the Charleston Area Medical Center Foundation, director of the Federal Reserve Board-Fifth District in Richmond, Va., vice president and director of the West Virginia Symphony and the President's Advisory Board for West Virginia University Institute of Technology.
Currently, in addition to his position with the Clay Center, Thomas is president of the Daywood Foundation and serves on the board of directors of the Business and Industrial Development Corp., of which he has been the chairman for the past seven years. He also is a trustee of the Jacobson Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benendum Foundation, advisory board member of the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, director of the West Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, the West Virginia Council for Community and Economic Development and the West Virginia Public Port Authority.
To say that he's busy is an understatement, but Thomas said he gets pleasure from his work to better the community.
"It's a great deal of personal pleasure in working with people to make good things happen for the community," he said. "Charleston is a great community in terms of people willing to step up, volunteer and work hard to bring something worthwhile to fruition."
He cited the Clay Center as an example.
"We organized a group in 1995, and it took many years of hard work and fundraising and design and preparation, but we were able to yield a great facility for the
community," he said. "That was an incentive for me to work with them to make something good happen. I just enjoy getting out, working with different groups, meeting different challenges. I had a long career in the coal industry, which is certainly an industry with a lot of challenges, so you get used to that."
Leaving a Legacy
To Thomas, working so hard for the community is not just something he does for fun, but something he thinks is inherent in each person.
"I think everyone in their lives at some point likes to feel they have made a contribution," he said. "That is sort of inherent in many people and to see the benefits that derive from that give an incentive to continue to do it in different venues, in different ways. I get a lot of pleasure out of doing it."
But another upside, Thomas said, is developing friendships and relationships with people he otherwise wouldn't have met. He said he hopes he influences someone in ways others have influenced him.
"Their lives have influenced me in good ways. I'll remember them for that," he said. "I hope others remember that I have contributed something to their well-being and pleasure during their lifetime."
Thomas said he hasn't enjoyed working with one group more than another, nor is there one accomplishment he takes pride in over others. He said he has taken pride in each project and group he's worked with, including "the smaller successes." But to him, one time in his life stands out more than others.
"I chaired the Davis & Elkins College board for about six years. A great deal of satisfaction came from that because it was a time where we were building. We built a library there and were recognized for trying to grow the institution," Thomas said. "Not one stands out in particular. I think I've enjoyed the culmination of all of them."
When Thomas finds some spare time, he enjoys being with his family, including five children and 14 grandchildren.
"We make the rounds and visit with them and enjoy their company and help with their projects," he said.
He also enjoys sports, including golf and tennis. In addition, he and his wife like to garden.
"I like working in the gardens," he said. "We have about an acre or so of land, and we try to plant shrubbery and plants and enhance the appearance of that. Both my wife and I enjoy that."
Thomas said he was uneasy being recognized for his accomplishments because there are others who do just as much work without recognition from the community.
"I've been the beneficiary of working with groups of people who have made things happen and I've been given leadership positions, but I'm fully aware of the fact that the success of it was attributable to the work of many and many who have not been recognized because they have not been in leadership roles," he said. "I'm appreciative of being recognized but certainly feel that there are others who are equally deserving, if not more so."
Despite the fact that he "doesn't revel in recognition at all," Thomas said he is grateful for the opportunity to work for the community.
"I've been blessed with good health and a good education, and I've tried to put those two together to share with others the benefits that I've had," he said.