Paul G. Compton (1944-2021)

“Mr. Paul” Compton (photo by Heidi Thompson, 2018)

Paul Gene Compton, 76, of Washington, D.C., passed away on 7 May 2021 while visiting the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C. A rosary was held on 10 May 2021 at The Dorchester in Washington, D.C., by various members of the community and women from Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Cremation arrangements were made by Mr. Darryl Salley at Capitol Mortuary in Washington, D.C.

Paul Gene Compton was born in the Riverside section of Morgantown, Monongalia County, W.V., along the Monongahela River and close to the Pennsylvania border in the north-central part of West Virginia to Roy Compton and Xantippe Corley on August 30, 1944.

His parents were both from Philippi (Barbour County), WV, on the Tygart Valley River and married when Roy was 22 and Xantippe was 16. When they got married Roy was living in Paris, WV, and Xantippe in Weaver, WV, an unincorporated coal mining community in Randolph County. They were married by Rev. Joseph Day at the bride’s residence in Weaver, on Nov. 21, 1914.

Paul left school in the 9th grade. He moved up to New Galilee (Beaver County), PA, in “Pensatucky” where he had family in the Beaver River watershed along Jordan Run. He was living and working in that area when his military draft number came up in 1963. At age 19, Paul was drafted into the U.S. Army on Sept. 17, 1963. He was a “Vietnam-era” veteran who, “luckily” as Paul said, was sent to the Pusan Perimeter in Korea as part of the Army’s 5th Battalion, 82nd Artillery, the “Black Dragons.” He served as an expert rifleman in the general infantry Army for two years in Korea. On Aug. 8, 1965, he was given an honorable discharge. He left the Army as Private First Class (E-3). Between 1963 when Paul was drafted and 1973 when the Paris Peace Accords were signed, 65 young men from rural Beaver County, PA were killed in that war. It was not a time that he liked to talk about.

Upon returning stateside, Paul returned to Beaver County, PA, to the New Galilee-Darlington areas to work in the steel mills and factories. Jones and Laughlin, Babcock and Wilcox, and Crucible all had steel mills in Beaver County. The glass factories, such as Flint Glass, Phoenix Glass, and Fry Glass, were also major employers in Beaver County. More than 35,000 Beaver County residents made their living from steel from the 1950s-1970s. That trend reached its plateau in the late 1970s, when more than 60 percent of the total local workforce was tied to the industry. Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. in Aliquippa, American Bridge Co. in Ambridge, Crucible Steel in Midland, and Babcock & Wilcox Steel in Beaver Falls, Koppel and Ambridge made up the majority of those jobs.

When the bottom fell out of big steel in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it hit Beaver County like a cannonball to the stomach. Paul was forced to find work elsewhere and came to Washington, D.C., where he worked a variety of jobs. Paul lived and worked around the Columbia Heights-Adams Morgan area. He lived at Cliffbourne Place NW, then 18th and Calvert NW, and eventually in 1999 Paul moved to 2724 11th Street NW, a small apartment building with 20 other families. Paul worked at the famous Millie & Al’s pizza joint in Adams Morgan. Then, in 2004, started his own business, Compton’s Painting & Plastering, until 2020. He was a known face in the neighborhood with his white van always waving to neighbors as he drove around.

Velbeth, Paul, and Michael

In 2003, he met Velbeth Ivan Cruz at 2724 11th Street NW and her son Miguel “Michael” Ivan Aguilera, who was four at the time. As Velbeth says, “In the afternoons, Paul was always at the window of his apartment waiting for the children to come from school to give them sweets. I would pick up Michael at the building where he was watched over while I was at work and Paul and I would talk. On an April afternoon with the air smelling of flowers, Paul asked me about always seeing me alone with my son. I told him yes, Mr. Compton. He said, ‘I’m alone and I’m looking for a wife.’ I smiled and was startled! God was allowing me to have a family again.”

Paul and Velbeth were married on April 17, 2003, in Arlington, Va. When they married, Paul told Velbeth that in the mountains of West Virginia there were bears and they ate people. One day, Paul took Velbeth and Miguel to meet his family in Morgantown, WV. On an afternoon with spectacular weather he drove Velbeth and Mike up to the mountains near the house of Paul’s sister NuNu. Velbeth, fearing getting lost, was thinking about what Paul had told her about the bear. So she took kernels of corn with her. While Paul drove them up a path through the forest, Velbeth threw kernels of corn, in case something happened to them, they could find their way back. This day was Velbeth’s first trip to the mountains. She was scared to death and her young son did not know much about the dangers in the mountains. Both Velbeth and Miguel are very grateful to God for Paul. He was a loving, respectful man. He was always there for them. He always called Velbeth ‘Mami.’

“Señor Paul,” as he was known to many of his neighbors, was an avid sports fan. He loved watching the LSU Tigers play football (“Hold that tiger!”) and was a card-carrying member of the Steelers Nation. He loved watching old Western movies, telling jokes, and playing cards. He loved ice cream! He was “Tio Pablo” to several generations of children at 2724 11th Street NW and a strong member of the 2724 11th Street NW Tenants Association. “Mr. Paul” minced no words when it came to the slumlord who owns that building and he fought every day to get the money he and his neighbors deserved.

He was preceded in death by his parents Roy Compton and Zantippie Corley Compton; his sisters Evelyn “Nunu” Compton Sweetnich (Nunu died at age 95 on Jan. 6, 2020, and was a seamstress for Morgan Shirt Factory for 30 years), Ercelene Compton Newhouse, and Betty Compton Pieri; and his brothers Albert Compton, James “Red” Compton, and Larry Compton.

Paul Gene Compton is survived by his wife Velbeth Ivan Cruz Compton, his son Miguel “Michael” Ivan Aguilera, and extended family around Morgantown, WV, and Darlington, PA, as well as many friends and neighbors in Washington, D.C. who miss him dearly. Now God has called Paul to be at God’s side and Paul will be an Angel in heaven. Rest in peace Paul Compton, you will always be in the heart of your wife and your son Miguel.–Rose Marie Berger

Denise Giardina: Mourning in the Mountains

Chris Keane/Reuters
Chris Keane/Reuters
There was a lovely reflection in today’s NYT by novelist Denise Giardina about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. Denise spent some time with Sojourners community in the late ’70s and early ’80s when she was working on her first book Storming Heaven. Since then she’s gone on to write Unquiet Earth, Saints and Villains, and Emily’s Ghost. Currently, Denise is the writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University. Below is an excerpt from her column:

Halfway through Saturday night’s semifinal against Duke, our star forward, Da’Sean Butler, tore a ligament in his knee, and the Mountaineers crumbled. And on Monday evening, while Duke and Butler played in what for us was now merely a game, West Virginians gathered around televisions to watch news of a coal mine disaster.

On Tuesday, the headline in The Charleston Gazette read instead: Miners Dead, Missing in Raleigh Explosion . And we cried.

Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather, the mood here in southern West Virginia is subdued. As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 men have been confirmed dead, two are critically injured, and four are missing and presumed dead. Their fellow West Virginians work round the clock and risk their own lives to retrieve the bodies.

Already outrage is focused on Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey has a history of negligence, and Upper Big Branch has often been cited in recent years for problems, including failure to properly vent methane gas, which officials say might have been the cause of Monday’s explosion.

It seems we can’t escape our heritage. I grew up in a coal camp in the southern part of the state. Every day my school bus drove past a sign posted by the local coal company keeping tally, like a basketball scoreboard, of “man hours” lost to accidents. From time to time classmates whose fathers had been killed or maimed would disappear, their families gone elsewhere to seek work.

We knew then, and know now, that we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide.

Read the whole column here.