As a student at Brownsville High School, William Leon "Willie" Byrd enjoyed playing the trumpet in the marching band. But talk of getting a job after graduation was the real music to his ears.
"Oh, I enjoyed being in the band," said Byrd, now a resident of Baltimore. "We had a great time going to the (football) games and marching up and down the field before the game and during the halftime shows. But many of us were looking forward to getting out of school, going to work and earning some money. Those were lean years for most families and having a job provided stability."
Byrd, 78, was raised by his aunt, Eunice Byrd, 87, in LaBelle. Eunice also cared for her mother and was raising her daughter, Lenora, at the same time.
"She is such a wonderful woman," Willie Byrd said of his aunt. "She is an incredible person with a big heart, compassion and concern for everyone around her. We didn't have a lot in terms of material things, but (Eunice) gave us a warm and loving home, and no one can ask for more than that when you're growing up."
Byrd and a boyhood friend, Mike Bogovich, went to work at the nearby Maxwell Mine, owned by the H.C. Frick Coke and Coal Co.
In 1951, they transferred to the U.S. Steel Corp.'s Karen Mine near Brownsville.
It was during his tenure at the Karen facility that Byrd and several fellow miners drew media attention because of their unusual method of getting to work on most days of the year. They crossed the Monongahela River in an outboard-powered skiff. The boat was christened "Germaine" in honor of Byrd's wife.
A Nov. 15, 1954, media release from U.S. Steel shows Byrd, identified as the craft's "skipper," with his "chief mate," Albert Lee, and a passenger, Roy Harvey, leaving the Karen Mine dock for their homes in Maxwell. Byrd and Lee were both mining …