The Common Good

Larry Gibson, Keeper of the Mountains

Larry Gibson, “Keeper of the Mountains,” died Sunday Sept. 9 at his home on Kayford Mountain, W.V. He was 66. His wife and three adult children survive. Gibson had a fifth grade education, a career as a custodian at an Ohio automobile factory, and retired to the obscure and abandoned place of his birth. Gibson stood 5’2”. 

“God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27b). From the halls of the nation’s most prestigious universities, through innumerable rallies, protests, and arrests, to the many hundreds of tours he hosted on Kayford, Gibson spoke truth to power with uncompromising integrity, unflagging determination, and heroic courage. 

Larry Gibson returned to West Virginia in the 1990s, and to his shock, learned that a new method of coal extraction was literally blasting mountains apart to extract coal while shoving the vast remaining rubble into adjacent valleys burying small streams. Ecosystems were being severely, irrevocably degraded. Scarcely anyone knew about mountaintop removal back then, let alone cared. 

Gibson made it his passion to “keep” the mountains. His trademark attire was his blaze yellow sweatshirt and cap, “Keeper of the Mountains,” at countless protests, rallies, lectures, even coat-and-tie affairs. His pickup truck was festooned with bumper stickers. His outspoken views evoked numerous assaults and acts of vandalism. Undaunted, Larry Gibson always chose the path of integrity over a life of security and ease. His answering machine’s message, “We are the keepers of the mountains. Love them or leave them, just don’t destroy them. If you dare to be one, too, call …”

Larry Gibson often reminded me of our first encounter in May 2005. He was in a sour mood, and seeing our “church folks” delegation ticked him off. “Why are you so late?” he had whined at us. Meaning, where have the church people been all these years while the mountains are being hewed down? 

Gibson harangued at our group stories of local churches who took coal money for picnic shelters, and of a New York minister who chastised him, “Be a good citizen. Our nation needs electricity, and you have coal.”  Larry did not seem to care much then for the church and its people. Hearing him, I understood. “If you aren’t going to do something to save the mountains, then you wasted my time!” he scolded us. Our group returned to Charleston, W.V., that evening and founded Christians For The Mountains, an advocacy organization to implore churches and their people to work for the abolishment of mountaintop removal as a desecration of God’s creation.  

Thousands of us can echo the sentiment of Ken Hechler, a Truman speechwriter, two-decade congressman, and scholar, to say, “Larry Gibson changed my life!”

My mind flashes back to my last time with Larry Gibson, this past Sunday morning September 2. He was holding a Gospel Festival on Kayford that weekend, with local musicians singing traditional southern Gospel and bluegrass, preaching Sunday afternoon. Larry was talking to some students from an Ohio college who had come up that festival weekend and camped out. Over the years, Larry had given thousands of such talks. How were we to know this would be his last? 

Larry talked for 90 minutes, the students’ eyes, ears, minds, and hearts fully absorbed. I had heard the presentation in various permutations on many occasions, but once again I was absorbed in Larry’s stories from the wellspring of his very being. At times he shouted and cajoled. And then he misted up, eyes watering with tears, paused, looked down and away, swiped his hand across his cheek, jutted his chin forward, and launched again the stories of the mountains. 

Stories about the people who had lived a hard, rugged life there. The nature he had enjoyed as a boy. The boom to bust of conventional coal mining and the resultant demise of the once thriving Kayford community. The invasion of bulldozers and explosives to tear down the mountains

“What in your life is so precious that no amount of money can buy it? What in your life is not for sale?” And of course, Kayford Mountain, and any other mountain for that matter, should not be for sale at any price. “The earth gives us life.”

As I watched those young people who will face tremendous challenges on this beleaguered planet over the next 60 or 70 years of their lives, I hope that Larry’s talk will “change their lives.”

The weekend before, a few of us had worked doggedly with Larry clearing brush at the site of the long-gone Kayford Church so that three crosses remaining at the top of the hill could be seen from the road. Larry spoke wistfully, and pointed, “A long time ago, when the church building was down there, people would walk up the hill after church to these crosses. There were benches here to sit on. The people would pray.”

For Gibson, those people who lived on the mountain with their sweat, blood, tears, and hard lives were not to be forgotten. I looked over the site and thought of the long-ago prayers prayed, the songs sung, the funerals and weddings, the eyes lifted up in hope. Now, decades later, our prayers that day mingled with theirs of long ago.

The Psalmist declares, “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in God’s holy place? Those with clean hands and pure hearts, who do not give in to lies or speak deceitfully” (Psalm 24).  

Celebrating Larry Gibson: The Life and Legacy of the Keeper of the Mountains will be held on Saturday, Oct. 13 on Kayford Mountain and Sunday, Oct. 14 in Charleston, W.V. 

Allen Johnson lives in West Virginia, where he coordinates Christians For The Mountains

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