Memories of Red Carroll

Red Carroll died on Saturday at a hospital in Beckley, West Virginia at the age of 92. He was recovering from surgery on a broken hip from a fall a few weeks ago. I first heard the news from Joe Hotkewicz, a good friend of Red’s who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. The fact that neither Joe nor I have ever lived in Coalwood is significant, because it tells you a little bit about what kind of person Red was.

Ernest “Red” Carroll was one of the first people I met in Coalwood, West Virginia in October of 2005. I was there as part of a group of teachers from Minneapolis on an unusual and (for me) life-changing professional development experience called “Coalwood to the Cape”, organized by Brad and Julie Blue.

We had come to Coalwood for the annual October Sky Festival to visit the home town of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys, made famous by Homer’s book and the movie October Sky. Father of rocket boy Jimmie “O’Dell” Carroll, Red was the last surviving rocket boy dad. Julie Blue knew Red well from her several previous visits to Coalwood and she made sure we got to spend lots of time with him.

Brad and Julie with Red during our tour of Coalwood, October, 2005 (photo by Steve Date)

Red led us on a narrated tour of the town, the rocket launch site (dubbed “Cape Coalwood”), a working coal mine, and he was part of a panel discussion in the town of War. He also invited us to his house. There, he showed us some of the “treasures” he’d collected while hauling trash in Coalwood, plus his vegetable garden, his bee hives and his beloved dahlias that lined the fence around his yard.

Julie and Red in his backyard. His shed (left) was a museum of old machines and gadgets he had collected. Some of his dahlias are visible in the background. (photo by Steve Date)

Red was in his late 80s in 2005 and while he moved slowly and took frequent short breaks, he still had plenty of energy to show us the town he loved so much. He was born in Coalwood and had live there all his life. He worked at the “tipple” for the coal mine for 16 years. The tipple is where the coal is loaded into trains or trucks after it comes out of the mine. Red’s job was “picking bone”, in other words, sorting the coal and discarding other types of rock that come out of the coal cars. He told me that he loved that job – “Couldn’t wait to go to work every day”, he said.

When the tipple closed in 1954, Red needed to find another job. He applied for the position of garbage collector. He was thankful to get the job and did it well for the next 33 years. Red was one of the instrumental adults that helped Homer, O’Dell and the other rocket boys get the materials they needed to build their rockets.

Red Carroll giving kids pony and wagon rides, 1956 (photo by David C. Ridenour)

The Red Carroll I knew was a quiet man – kind, generous and gentle. He was above all, a man of faith. To say he was deeply religious understates it. His faith in God was stronger than anyone I’ve ever met and God was just barely under the surface in every conversation. Peggy Blevins always says that Red had “DSL to the Lord”.

By some accounts he had a little harder edge in his younger years. He was a strict, but loving father to O’Dell and his brothers and sister. O’Dell says that one of the things his dad wouldn’t allow him to do while growing up was go to movies. How ironic that years later, Red not only liked the movie October Sky, but embraced it with all his heart and encouraged everyone he met to see it.

After Homer’s book and then the movie came out in 1999, tourists started coming to see the town that was now known as “Home of the Rocket Boys”. Red would usually be around somewhere and stop to talk with visitors. He told them about the history of the town and showed them the sites they had come to see. When a few people in town decided to have a yearly festival honoring the Rocket Boys, Red quickly became an important part of the festivities.

Red opened every October Sky Festival with an emotional prayer and then spent the rest of the day roaming around town, greeting visitors and catching up with old friends.

Here’s a little video I did from the 2009 October Sky Festival, featuring Red Riding the fire truck into town with the Rocket Boys and then saying a prayer to open the day’s festivities.

Red kicks off the 2006 October Sky Festival by delivering the invocation as only he could. (photo by David Goad)

Red had two sets of children. The older generation — with Virginia, his first wife — including Jimmie (O’Dell), grew up in a very different time in Coalwood. There isn’t much left (in Coalwood or anywhere) of the life and times that Homer Hickam wrote about in his memoir. Red was very proud of Jimmie (O’Dell) and the rocket boys. Sadly, Red lost another of his sons, Donnie, a few years ago.

Red in his backyard with Caleb and Ivy, October, 2007 (photo by Steve Date)

Long before Larry King ever got the idea, Red had two sons at an advanced age with his second wife, Ivy. Josh is now in his twenties and Caleb is a Junior in high school. Red always talked about hoping to live long enough to see them grow up. It was one of the things that kept him going.

During the 5 years that Brad and Julie brought Minneapolis teachers to Coalwood, Red’s tours and a stop at his house became a regular and special part of the group’s activities. Each year he moved a little slower, he needed a little more nap time, and his voice became a little weaker, but he always gave us all the energy he had. He was a good friend to us and a great ambassador for Coalwood.

Red welcomes the 2007 Minneapolis GEMS/GISE teachers group to his house. (photo by Steve Date)

I’m not going to pretend I knew Red well. I was just one of the thousands of people who came through town, met him and will never forget him. I have to thank Julie and Brad Blue for introducing me to Red and to Coalwood. They had a lot of affection for Red and he for them. Brad told me yesterday, “Homer introduced us to Red. And Homer wrote The Coalwood Way. Red LIVED the Coalwood Way.”

My favorite picture of Julie and Red together.

I also want to thank David Goad, for helping me get to know Red better and going to Red’s house with me to interview him for my film (the first interview I ever did) and coming along when I did other shooting with Red. Red and David liked each other a lot and David’s presence, approval, and his helping me interview Red was very important to me.

Red and David Goad at City Hall in War, WV, August, 2006 (photo by Steve Date)

The last time I talked with Red was a couple of days before the 2009 October Sky Festival. I had just arrived in town and was talking to someone in front of the Clubhouse. Red was cruising around in his car as he often did. He pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. “Hey Buddy, when you gonna stop up at the house and see me?” I know he called everyone “Buddy”, but I always liked it.

I stopped over there a little later and we had a nice talk. I had just gotten DVDs of my movie printed and it was one of the great moments of my life to be able to give some copies to him. Red was one of the main reasons I made the film. He was the first interview I wanted to do when I began shooting in 2006 and he was the cornerstone of the project.

He seemed tired and frail that day. He would occasionally drift off and lose his train of thought. He told me he thought it would be his last October Sky Festival and the condition he was in gave me no reason to doubt it.

However, it wasn’t his last festival. He hung on for another 15 months and was able to greet all the visitors to his town one last time about 3 months ago.

If we are equal parts mind, body and spirit, then Red did it right. He took care of himself and lived a long, good life. His body and mind gradually deteriorated at a ripe old age, but his spirit continued to the end. To me, that’s the way it should be. He loved life, but I’ve never met anyone so prepared to leave this world as Red was. And now his spirit continues through the memories of all of us who knew him.

Rest in peace, Red.

Do you have any memories of Red that you’d like to share? Leave comments below. Thank you.

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24 thoughts on “Memories of Red Carroll

  1. Steve,
    Loved the story and the pictures. We will all miss Red but like he always told me “there’s a better place” and I’m sure he is there!
    Carol

    • Mom, you are right….there is a better place and if anyone is there, Red is. I was happy to see him in October. He will be missed. The tribute was very nice.
      Laura

  2. I was born in 1958 and lived 18 years in Coalwood, from birth until I graduated Big Creek. I remember Red very well, he was always nice to the kids. He was our one and only garbage collector, did the whole town by himself with his one truck. At Christmas he would clean up the truck and take the kids and teens from the Coalwood Methodist Church on a hay ride in it to see the Christmas lights in town. Every year at the Coalwood company store, Santa would be there for the little ones to visit, and there would be Red, handing out little brown paper bags that had an orange, a few Walnuts and a candy cane in it, and the bags were so special to us back them. Red was an icon in Coalwood for sure! I also remember in the early 70’s he had a black (Mina?) bird in a cage on the front porch, and whenever the bird saw someone, it would let out a string of curse words that was audible all the way to the main road! I used to think that was the funniest thing ever. Thanks for the article, as you can tell, it brought back lots of happy memories!

  3. Red attended the P.H. Church where my mother and father pastored in late 60’s early 70’s. I have nothing but great memories from the Christmas hay rides, and all the treats he prepared. He made sure we all had more than enough candy. He always had our family down through the Christmas holidays, and was very hospitable. I have heard him pray many, many, prayers and sing many songs. I know he is in the presence of his Creator, whom he dearly loved. We will surely miss him, but we cherish the time we did spend with him.

  4. It was my honor to introduce Red Carroll at the October Sky Festival opening ceremonies these past several years. His opening prayer was always filled with real emotion, and his genuine good nature showed through. Thanks Steve, for the fine tribute to a good man.

  5. Steve,
    Just being released from the hospital myself and then finding out about Red the same day had really, really made me begin to think about all the GOOD times that Red and I had together, from finding the original “Cape Coalwood”, having it rebuilt and me running from the snake and Red getting tickled over it. I will never forget this man, to me a father figure who stopped to check on me when he was out giving tours right down to my last jar of honey that he gave me. I will miss you my dear, dear friend. He will definately be missed by the people of Coalwood, especially myself. He was my “go to God” when I was down and out. I WILL MISS YOU MY FRIEND BUT WILL SEE YOU SOON. Ivy is a strong person as well so I am sure she will do well for herself. I am here if you need ANYTHING AT ALL IVY, just let me know. Love to my community and to “Cape Coalwood”.

  6. Uncle Red was a true Coalwood citizen who loved his town, it’s people and his church. He loved life and shared himself with everyone. He was a true friend to all. There is so much that can be said about Red Carroll, the man and how he lived his life to the fullest. He will be missed by all of us who knew him and by those who only know his name because of his ties with the Rocket Boys. He is where he is needed the most, greeting and showing people around as they come through Heavens Gates…..

  7. Steve. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart and my families heart. This is a great honor to my father. His memory will always be a great one. Thank you again for this wonderful tribute.

    -Josh C.

  8. When I married Dana Pauley and moved to Coalwood in 1981 Red Carroll was one of the first people I met. When our son, Stephen was born in 1984 Red became his hero. Red would see my husband and Stephen taking a walk and pick them up and take them for a ride in his truck. To Stephen it was more exciting than riding in a rocket to the moon. We found a small storybook about a trashman who traveled through a small town picking up animals to give them a ride. As I read the book to Stephen over and over he began to insert Red Carroll as the name of the trashman. As a very young child, Stephen knew that Red was a very important person who was famous and “larger than life”. Stephen often told me he wanted to grow up and be Red Carrol the Trashman. When we moved from Coalwood Red was one of the people Stephen missed the most. It was always exciting to see him when we visited over the years.
    Dana and I attended the 2010 October Sky Festival and he and Red had a long talk. Dana was not sure Red really remembered him until Red asked about “that little boy” who used to ride in his truck.
    He will be greatly missed.
    Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a man I would be proud for my son to grow up to be like.
    My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

  9. I remember your beautiful flowers in your garden. They were as big as your heart. Thanks for welcoming us, the Minneapolis Teachers, into your home and life.

  10. Steve,
    As always, you have shown great sensitivity and perception as you described Red and his role as a faithful, admired leader in the community. He was an amazing source of information about the “old” and “new” Coalwood as well as an inspiration at each Festival. We were never able to spend much time with Red since he was always entertaining visitors with his fascinating stories but all of our memories of Coalwood include Red. He will never be forgotten! Thanks for this touching tribute to a great man!

  11. Hey Steve just a quick question. I remember coming down the road one day a few years ago maybe a few days before the festival, and seeing a black camera bag just setting beside the road. I looked up and seen a man further down the road. I picked up the bag and rode down to where the man was standing and asked if it was his bag and he politely said yes. Was that you?

    • Josh, I think your memory is correct. I’ve left more camera bags, other bags and various other things in more places than anyone you’ve ever met. Take a look at the picture of me with your dad at the bottom of the blog post to see if you recognize me. And I’m usually fairly polite.
      Steve

  12. Steve,

    I feel sorry for all the people that will not get to meet Red.
    I had the honor to meet Red in 2007, the same day that I met David Goad and yourself. You filmed my son and I as Red told us all about Coalwood. It was a great day. Red talked to us for about 45 minutes to an hour. At the end of our meeting, I did what I thought was the “polite” thing to do, and offer to pay Red for his time. Red seemed to take offense at the idea, explaining that he had talk to people from all 50 states and 13 different countries, he just enjoyed doing it. On a later trip to Coalwood I took Red some home ground cornmeal. A small token of my appreciation , which Red gladly accepted. Every trip I made to Coalwood, I would bring him things, more cornmeal, peaches, fresh peanuts from Alabama. To tell the truth the items were not for Reds benefits as much as they were for mine. Every trip I looked forward to visiting Red, if even for a few minutes. Thank you Red.
    I would like to offer my sympathy to Reds family. Red touched so many peoples lives. He will be missed. I’ll miss him.
    Joe Knowles

  13. Red was my best friend .He and I would set for hours talking about Coalwood in better times.I knew Red all my life .If not for Reds helping me with the history of coalwood .I doint think my Coalwood book would have ever been completed . I shall cherish my memories of Red .God speed my old buddy

  14. I live next to one of his Son’s , Jerry. Now I know why Jerry is such a good man, because his Dad taught him well and I thank him for the Carroll family.

  15. I meet Mr. Carroll back in 2007..It’s funny,,How alot of things can connect people in stories and life…I was one of the lucky ones to just share a day with this wonderfull man…It was Sept the 1st 2007….
    He showed me all around Coalwood and all the history behind it…After a long day he took his books and pictures out and talked about how his life been and we started talking about Ivy was kinda nervous at first till she talked to me and was at ease….he said,,,she told me one day someone gonna knock you in the head and rob you and leave you to die,,and he added,,before I die I’ll write I love you God….He asked me about what I believe in,,and I told him yes,,I always have believed,,and thats why anyone ever see his hat that said *not for sale*…I asked him,,and he said it was his soul….
    We ended the day at his home..Narrow gravel road and I remember this long wall on the left with so many beautiful flowers…He talked about his bees and showed me all his coal art,,and papers from his son goin tru school…
    I never had a person that I met the first time touch me so much….I thank him always in my memory of that day…I saddens me to find out he left us…Bless him and his family always……

  16. Pingback: Coalwood is in my heart today | Trying to pay attention

  17. Red Carroll was my great uncle. He was my papaw’s brother. I met him once out twice, very friendly man. Sadly I don’t have any memories with him.

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