I Am Coal: A Profile of Sunrise Coal’s Karan Thacker
By T.L. Headley, American Coal Council
In March 1980, Karan Thacker was looking for a job. Her family was having a hard time making ends meet on her husband’s salary alone. At the time, the country was in the middle of an extended recession and there were few choices available for someone with only a high school diploma.
“I just needed a good job,” Karan said. “I was young and had a two- and a three-year old. We were struggling. We needed more income and health insurance.”
The best job prospects in southern Illinois were in coal mining. It was probably the one industry Karan never saw herself being a part of. She didn’t grow up in a coal mining family and she had no familiarity with the coal industry. She really didn’t know what to expect, but she thought she’d give it a try.
“They were hiring and all my friends were going to work in the mines,” Karan said. “I applied for a job and was hired as a general laborer on the third shift – the bottom of the barrel. But that’s how you learn. I had no training at all.”
Her first job was at Amax Coal Company’s Wabash Mine in Keensburg, Illinois.
Karan didn’t go into the job with any preconceived notions about what it would be like. “I knew it would be hard work and long hours,” she said. “But I liked it more than I thought. It was hard but not impossible.” Karan saw that by putting the time in as a general laborer, there were opportunities for advancement.
Karan learned quickly and began to work her way up through the ranks.
“While I worked underground, I learned how to run the equipment – shuttlecars, roof bolters, scoops and track haulage,” she said. “Then I received my mine examiner and mine foreman papers in Illinois. In 1985, I applied for and accepted a position in the communications center at Wabash, which was a salary position. I continued to work there until 1997 when they had a large workforce reduction.” Karan was part of that reduction.
Karan said it was actually a blessing in disguise because of the availability of funding provided by the federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Those who lost jobs due to the rule’s passage were eligible for educational assistance. She took advantage of the program, which was administered by Indiana WorkOne – the state’s employment services program.
“They took care of applications for funds and distribution of funds which were provided by the federal government through a grant,” Karan said. “I had to apply each semester and provide documentation of all expenses and classes taken.” In May 2000, she received her degree in business administration with an accounting major.
“I loved my job at Wabash. I was devastated when I went through a layoff, but because of that I was able to go back and get a degree,” she said.
Karan then went to work as human resources manager at Elmer Buchta Trucking, a large coal hauler in southern Indiana.
“It was a really good job,” she said. “I still got to work with the mines and I stayed there until January 2009.”
At that time, Karan accepted a position as human resources manager for Vectren Fuels’ Prosperity Mine in Petersburg, Indiana. In 2012, she moved to take the same job at the Black Panther Mine (now Oaktown Fuels 1&2), a sister mine to Prosperity. She’s been there ever since. Both mines were acquired in September 2014 by Sunrise Coal.
With 35 years working in the coal mining industry, Karan is planning to retire in the next year. Looking back on her career, she wouldn’t trade it for another.
“It gets in your blood,” she said. “Once you’re a coal miner, it’s hard to go into any other job. That saying you use, ‘I Am Coal’, is true. It becomes not just what you do but who you are.”
Karan is proud of her job and her work in the coal industry.
“I am part of the team that works to produce the coal that the world needs,” she said. “We really do keep the lights on, not just here in the United States but for the world. Most people just don’t realize it. And I do feel that I am coal because I am part of that team. We depend on each other and trust each other. It’s definitely made me a better person.”
Karan said the coal industry really is more like a family, and she noted that isn’t just a saying. A parent will request an interview for a son or daughter, and there are many examples of parents and children working together at the mine. Karan thinks employees see the opportunity for their children to earn good pay and good benefits. Coal is just a good family industry.
“I have met so many hard-working, brave people in my years in the industry. I hear it called ‘Big Coal’ but there’s no difference between us … we’re all coal miners. We support each other and look out for each other on the job.”
Karan said it upsets her when she hears people talking negatively about the coal industry. She would recommend working in the industry to anyone.
“People who talk negatively about the coal industry don’t understand mining,” Karan said. “It gave me the opportunity to start at entry-level and move up, to raise my children and to allow them to get college degrees. And it has helped me move into retirement comfortably.”
Much has changed since the spring of 1980. America has changed. The coal industry has changed. But one thing hasn’t changed – our country can depend on coal and people like Karan Thacker to provide the resources to fuel our nation’s economy.