Eugene McGinn, at this interview, was eighty-seven years old, and a virtual living data base, a zip drive loaded with delightful memories of his life in Sopris an the Trinidad Valley. He was born on August 29, 1909 to Tom McGinn and Gabrielle. Mom's maiden name was Zachinski. Eugene was one of ten children (five boys and five girls) born into the family, most of them making their grand entrance into this world in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eight of ten kids survived. The mathematical difference of the survivors was equally distributed; four boys an
four girls. There was no sexual discrimination to be found within the McGinn clan! Gene was somewhere in the middle of the gaggle of kids., There was Thomas, Marion, Corolla, Horace, Virginia, Mary, and... Poppa Thomas, at the time momma was giving birth to all the kids, was working in Aguajita in old Mexico as mining engineer. Gabrielle was sent by Thomas to the modern hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico to have some of the McGinn babies. And that's when Eugene was born.
Dad eventually moved the family to Robinson County, Texas from Mexico where he found employment in another coal mine. After a brief tenure in Robinson County, the McGinn's moved on to the coal fields in Louisville, Colorado, west of Denver near Boulder City. This was around the time of the great coal strike the ravaged the country back in 1913. Poppa McGinn, by now promoted to the position of mine boss, shortly after the termination of the great strike, hired back some of the striking miners. Incensed by his actions, he coal company fired Thomas immediately, then blackballed him forever throughout the entire Rocky Mountain state. Expressed sympathy for the strikers was definitely a no-no back then. Without hesitation, he moved the family once again, this time to Yankee, in northern New Mexico, where he procured employment in another coal mine. Unfortunately for the McGinn's, the mine shut down during the ensuing summer, and the family breadwinner was again unable to bring home the bacon to the rapidly expanding
We almost starved," reminisced a pensive Eugene as he reminisced comfortably on his couch in the living room of his home. "We were real poor back then."
The McGinn's hitched up their pants and returned to Robinson City, Texas where poppa Thomas worked a mine owned by the Swift Meat Packing Company, the same conglomerate that owned the coal mines in Yankee and Robinson City. They remained at Robinson City for four years, until the mine was inundated with artesian water and was forced to close. The company pumped the water from the deepest nadir of the subterranean bituminous caverns, a procedure that only worked to weaken the walls, forcing them to cave in.
And so, poppa McGinn was again out of work with nowhere to go. But, like a pot of gleaming gold at the end of the rainbow, Colorado was beckoning. Despite the fact that he was blackballed from the coal industry in the entire state, he took a huge gamble and headed for Aguilar where he was hired by the Jewel Mine Corporation as a pit and fire boss. Eugene, following his father's moves like a hungry little gypsy, was eleven years old when he matriculated into the fourth grade
at the Aguilar Elementary School.
And by now child Eugene was well versed in the trials and tribulations of the coal mining industry, highly experienced and quite knowledgeable about the dominating forces of King Coal in western America. And he was only a little over a decade old in chronological years.
Gene would continue with his highly esteemed educational pursuits, graduating from Aguilar High School in May of 1929. In the interim, he continued with the family tradition, working at the tipple of the Empire Mine during the summer months. And he played baseball, too. Eugene McGinn, like many of the coal miners of his day, loved his baseball. He played center field for one of the two teams sponsored by the Empire Mine in Aguilar. And in 1929, as we remember our history, the country was mired deep in the miasma of a great depression. He continued working for the Empire Mining Company, laboring in the blacksmith shop for six months, then he was moved into the belly of the mine where he dug coal with a pick and shovel. "They laid off many workers at this time," mused McGinn. "I was lucky to be digging coal."
And it was during this era of extreme privation that he met his beloved "Tess." Theresa Falsetto, a recent graduate of Primero High School, was a young energetic and aspiring teacher. Theresa was instructing elementary school children in Aguilar. She, too, loved baseball, so Tess and a close friend strayed over to the ball field to watch a game one bright and sunny Sunday afternoon. And, as you probably would have already guessed, there was the lanky Eugene McGinn, all six feet of him, roaming center field like a graceful gazelle for the Empire Coal
Company team. "We played four innings and it started to rain hard," explained Eugene, this time with a particularly special gleam in his eye. "So she and another girl got into my car to avoid getting wet. That started the romance. I had a date with her that night."
Gene continued to work in the coal mines, now laboring in the mine in Rugby, and, of course, also playing baseball and dating young "Tess." They courted for four years before finally tying the knot. And, as precluded by the statistical odds back in those days, when one worked in a coal mine, he injured his back and right shoulder in a rock fall. Suffering excruciating pain, he continued his work for six additional months before heading off to Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley to work on a degree in teaching. Meanwhile, Theresa remained at her job in the Aguilar elementary school to provide financial support for her new husband while he
pursued his cherished academics. He also earned much needed cash by working in the mines in Rugby, and Butte Valley in the fall of the year, then returning to college during the winter, spring, and summer quarters.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education from Colorado State Teachers College, Eugene found his first teaching job in Redwing, Colorado, in a brand spanking new two-room school. Tess took a job there too. Didn't want to be away from her precious young Geno anymore. She taught grades one through four. Gene worked with the kids in grades five through eight.
Then, in 1942, about one year after the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, Eugene enlisted in the Army where he was matriculated into Company F of the 354th Infantry. The unit was stationed at Camp Carson in Colorado Springs. He never was shipped overseas because he became seriously ill with ulcers, a problem so severe he underwent major surgery for the removal of a gallbladder. That same year, in 1942, he was awarded an honorable discharge.
So it was back to old Aguilar town where he was again hired by the Butte Valley Coal Mining Company. That first summer he worked at the tipple, outside the mine, and, of course, in a much safer environment. During the winter months he taught school. While at Butte Valley, he was transferred to the position of boxcar loader, and it was during this work assignment that he believes he contracted the dreadful Black Lung disease, a problem that afflicted numerous miners of the era.
I remember the coal mines well," said McGinn. "They were real dirty, dust was everywhere. It was hard work and they were dangerous. Roofs were bad and there was always the threat of gas. I knew workers who were electrocuted at other mines because of improper care of power lines. And blasting the coal was dangerous. I always had to work with a pick and shovel. That was the safest. I didn't mind that at all. I was too dumb to know any better. Most of the mines I worked in were high enough, about six feet, to stand in. We hauled the coal out with horses and mules. The coal was moved from the working space to the main parting area where it was picked up with a hoist and carried to the outside tipple.
I can remember a time when we only worked two days a week because the severe pressure of the roof forced the bottom to come up. The coal would be soft where you would have a 'squeeze.' White mules would come out of the mine black with coal dust. We would cough coal dust for several days."
Those long, interminable days in the coal mine made a deep impression on young Eugene. Coal mining was, ultimately, not to be in his future. His destiny was academe. Teaching was the real name of his game. He continued working at the small two-room school with "Tess" at Butte Valley. They were compensated for their diligent academic efforts with warrants that were not immediately cashable; they were required to register the warrants and draw interest on them until they were redeemable. And, remarkably, because of a small amount of money they managed
to save, they could afford to postpone cashing their warrants. Rent at Redwing was ten dollars a month, water was one dollar, electricity was a buck fifty. For an additional dollar and one-half, they purchased a ton of coal for heating and cooking, a generous supply of fuel that provided them for three months. He earned eighty-five dollars a month in salary. "Tess" garnered seventy-five dollars each pay period. The McGinn's were wallowing in extravagant opulence!
In 1945, about the time of the termination of the second great European holocaust, he was hired into the Thatcher School District as Superintendent of Schools. It was during this same year that destiny beckoned once again.
With an unremitting desire to continue his work with the young folks, Gene McGinn, now freshly equipped with a Bachelors Degree in Education, and continuing his work on a masters degree in School Administration, was recruited for the position of Superintendent of the Lincoln School in old Sopris Town.
And that, dear readers, is yet another story.
Eugene and "Tess" moved from Thatcher, where they spent only a brief year teaching school there. The newlyweds, with a challenging new job, journeyed to Sopris in search of a home, but to no avail. There were no dwellings for sale in old Sopris town, so the McGinns were forced to shop in Trinidad. A brief search resulted in their purchase of a comfortable little house at 503 Chestnut Street, deep in the heart of the aged town. Gene and "Tess" would become commuters, ironically, travelling each workday to a place they always thought of as their real home, Sopris.
Gene virtually beamed with delight at the mere mention of that endearing little community nestled near the foothills of the Purgatorie Valley.
And so, as he reposed in his comfortable chair in his comfortable abode that he and Tess shared for so many years, McGinn spoke eloquently about his early memories of old Sopris town.
"I remember Mr. Fitzsimmons," McGinn mused. "He was the Superintendent. I went into his office, and the County High School Administrator introduced me to him. He was having a meeting at the time, about the senior trip, and I waited until it was over. He was very nice. And I met some of the students. I remember Mary Antista and Dr. (Gloria) Skufka and Corky lncitti. They were lovely people. They were having a meeting about a trip to the Carlsbad Caverns.
"After my meeting with Mr. Fitzsimmons, I left and came back three days
later to meet with the school board. Alfred Lamminger was on the board then, and
Pete Coszalter and Adolf Sebben. They were very nice and considerate. They
approved my application. I went back to Thatcher that evening and came back a few
days later. It was in the evening when I returned to Sopris and all the kids were
playing softball around the high school, because it was like a camp. I can still
remember some of the kids singing 'Sue City Sue.' Oh, it was such a lovely evening.
I met with the board that evening. And I went back to Thatcher, and by this time
school was out. In about a week or so, I went to summer school in Greeley. I was
working on my master's degree in School Administration. I spent the summer there
and then I came back. There was a delay in the start of school because there was a
polio epidemic. It was a statewide epidemic, or so they thought it was. Anyway, it
gave me more time to get settled.
"I enjoyed working at Sopris very much. Theresa did too. We had a good
time there. They were wonderful people, and the parents were so considerate about
the students. They wanted them all to do well in life. Many of those parents had a
hard life, and they did not want their children to have a hard life too, so they
encouraged them to study. There was a lot of competition among the students and
they did very well. We put out a lot of excellent students. Albert Lamminger had a
big job with Boeing Aircraft. So did Bart Antista, who was a designer, and Chris
Cunico went on to become an engineer for a large corporation. Dominic Incitti, who
was superintendent of a large school district in Colorado Springs, and Antoinette
Falduto was a teacher in Hoehne. "Some of the people that were there during my
first year were Mary Antista, Corky Incitti, Joe DeAngelis and John Battistone. John
was kind of a clown. He was a good kid. He always had a good laugh. And Frank
Martinez was the basketball coach then.
"He coached at Sopris for two or three years. We didn't do too well then with our athletics, because our objectives were education. We strived for it. We had high standards. We required twenty hours per year for graduation. Elsewhere, it was sixteen. But it paid off. We required all our high school kids to take four years of English.
"Theresa taught the English. She was excellent. And she worked hard. She stayed home at night and got prepared for the next day. I definitely think, as a teacher, you have to have that preparation. She was always well prepared for the next day. Sometimes, when a teacher was absent, I taught. One of the boys said to me one time, 'Gee, when you substituted for Chemistry class you taught Geography.'
Well, I had to teach something I knew about!"
Eugene rested briefly, then took a deep breath before continuing with his reminisces. At the time of this interview, he was experiencing extreme difficulty with his breathing, a problem resulting from the black lung he had incurred while working in the coal mines early in his career.
"I spent a lot of years of my life in coal camps," McGinn continued. "I got along well in Sopris, because I was a coal miner and I knew their objective in life was to improve over their previous standards. A lot of them came from Italy and they had a hard time. They didn't know the language and had setbacks of various kinds. And Sopris, you know, it really was one town, and they called it Piedmont, St. Thomas and Sopris. It wasn't big enough to have three names like that. The Colorado Fuel & Iron Company divided the camp into three different areas. And the
school district, you should have seen those boundary lines. If they wanted one house
in our district, they'd just go around it."
And what was a typical workday like for you at the old school in Sopris, Mr. McGinn?
"We started school at 9 A.M.," McGinn explained. "I had the grade school and high school also. I had the bus routes. I had to see that all those kids got there all the time. I got the reports from the teachers, to see which kids were there. I don't remember the sequence of all the classes, but let's say in the morning they'd give you math. I'd hate to have to start school with a math class. It would ruin your whole day! And I remember on our achievement tests we were low in spelling. So I gathered the teachers together to discuss the little spellers that they used. You could
spell every word in it and take a comprehensive test and still get a low grade. So I had them teach all the proper names, like Czechoslovakia and all the names of early pioneers. After that, we did ery well in spelling. And I harped on English and reading for all the grades. If you have a good background in English and reading and you don't further you education, and had that desire to read, you can get that education just by reading. I know very many people who were well read and didn't even go to high school. They had a good education. I believe, like Dr. Curry,
president of Greeley State Teachers' College, who said at one of our Sopris commencements, that education is a continuous process from womb to tomb.' And he was right."
And how about the Sopris school system, back in those days, Mr. McGinn?
I believe our readers would like to hear a little more about that.
"I think, in high school my first year, we had about sixty to sixty-five kids. When you (Leonetti) were there, we had about one hundred. In grade school, one-hundred fifty, maybe. All together, two hundred or more. It was always a district with very low valuation, because the only taxes were on private homes. There were no businesses to speak of. The CF&I took the mines out and the railroad taxes went to the St. Thomas School, so we had a low budget. There was much
financial concern for the district, so we watched it very carefully. We never came out in the red. And we had the lunch program. I forget what we received for each child. I think we started at fifteen cents per child. I noticed, in the paper the other day, that $35,000 was allocated to District # I (Trinidad) for its lunch program. And more people eat now than back then. And did we have great cooks. Mrs. Zancanara and Mrs. Terry, they worked hard and cooked great meals. We got flour from the government. We got everything we possibly could from the government, a lot of
chicken, sometimes ham steaks and real butter. I couldn't wait to get there and have
And then there were all those good folks that you met and worked with, throughout all those years, more than two memorable decades of experiences in Sopris town.
"We always had a pretty good faculty," McGinn continued. "Ralph Fausone was good in the business area. I remember Wayne Spahr and Gene Sagath. He was from West Virginia University. I looked to colleges all over the country for a basketball coach. I wanted a letterman and I got Sagath. He was a star basketball player from the University of West Virginia. Oh, he was fabulous. What a good passer he was. And he had a good basketball team, too. We had a good basketball team, about the time the school closed down. Joe DeAngelis and Jimmy Martinez
were playing about then. And Billy Brunelli, Josky Baca and Bernard Martorano played on that team, along with Bobby Parker. Bobby was a shy little kid, but he loved sports. Oh, how he loved basketbal1.
"One time, Jimmy (Martinez) called in sick to school on a Friday, and then showed up that night to play basketbal1. I told him 'if you are too sick to go to school, you are too sick to play basketbal1.' I was a disciplinarian. A lot of them called me a dictator. But after they got out of school they appreciated it. Martorano (Bernard), he is so grateful for the discipline that we gave him. Now he has a good job as the director of the BOCES in the Arkansas Valley. I am so glad for those kids. I disciplined them because I only wanted the best for them. And the people in the
community really appreciate that discipline. They knew that we were for them. My dad told me once, 'Son, don't think you are ever better than the people in you are community. Some of the best people in the community are coal miners.' And I remembered that.
"There was just something about Sopris. We were like a big family and people never locked their doors at night, or when they left the house. Now you lock it all the time. I remember there were several stores and a post office. Adolf (Sebben) had the store in Sopris the last few years. The Buteros were a good family, with Jasper and a couple of other boys. They were all good kids. A very good family. They all got a good education. And the Brunellis; Billy was an excellent
student. He got a job, working at Hewlet-Packard in Loveland. Gene Vigil also worked there. Gene was a good student. Crist Cunico once said he had 35,000 people working under his supervision. I saw Raymond Sanchez at church a while back. And Chuck Cambruzzi is retired and living here. When I see people like that, retired, I begin to realize how old I really am. Chuck (Cambruzzi) was a real good kid. I have not seen him since he moved to Trinidad.
"I was in Sopris for twenty-one or so years, and I enjoyed it all. Tom Tamburelli was an excellent student and he has done well. He was here the other day, with his son. He is very intelligent, now teaching university classes. Tom was a good basketball player too. Joe Maccagnon was in the very first class at Sopris. He was a good ball player, with a lot of power. Ernest Lira was with John Maccagnon and that bunch. And Ernie's sister, Joyce, married a professor at Colorado State. Ernest's dad was a very good man who worked at the Post Office in Weston for years and years. I remember all the Shablo clan. And Larry Sebben is a wonderful person. I saw him at Mt. Carmel Church a few days back, the first time I had seen him in
about thirty years. It's such a long time since I've seen him. He still has that great big smile that he's always had. And I'll never forget Murray Franciscato. Boy, was he a disciplinarian. I had to get after him a few times, because he was too hard. He made those kids run up and down the basketball court, even the kids with injuries. He would stick to those fundamentals. He was very kind, too. I remember one boy had a hole in his shoes and Murray brought him to town and bought him some new shoes. He did the same thing with a kid who needed ajacket. And he helped a lot of people fix their houses and things like that."
And that very last batch of kids, at good old Lincoln High, Mr. McGinn, do you remember?
"I know there. were two boys from Starkville in that last class," McGinn explained. "One of them is now our County Clerk, Bernie Gonzales. He is a lovely guy. Those Starkville kids were good ball players, too. And I remember one time, when we were driving to a basketball tournament in the San Luis Valley, Celestino (Santistevan) had his head against the window of the bus the whole way up there and didn't say a word. When we finally got to our destination, he finally said, '74 deer, 22 elk, 4 skunk!' He was very busy, wasn't he? But everyone loved Celestino. He was
a team manager and a good one. Then we had the Bonatos. I believe Albert and
Kirby could have been the last one in the group."
In 1966, with the closure of the Sopris elementary school, McGinn transferred to the Trinidad School District where he administered the Special Education Program, and the Title I and Title II programs. Ultimately, he would also manage a summer school program for students who needed additional academic assistance, or students who were lacking in credits for graduation.
He retired in the fall of 1975, and in January he proceeded to pursue a favorite pastime, ice fishing. Many pleasant hours were spent fishing with nephew Charlie Brabb, Paul Butero, Barrron Cordova, and Joe "Shorty" Incitti. It was during one of those ice-fishing escapades that McGinn contracted pneumonia, an illness that exacerbated a long-dormant problem of black lung.
And it was during that time too. in 1993, that his beloved "Tess" passed away.
Once again, the thought of his beloved wife elicited yet another noble account. "I had to call Spraggs (Incitti) one time to put in a door on my house for me," McGinn recalled. "I came home late one night, and no door. Theresa sold it. Oh, my wife! She sold it to a neighbor. She would sell anything."
"It's been a good life, especially all those great years of Sopris," McGinn concluded. "The very best part of all those years was working with such a wonderful people, the parents and the students. Any success I have was because of the cooperation I had with the board, and parents, and the students.
"I loved Sopris. I just loved all of the people."
Note: Eugene McGinn passed away March 15, 1997.