Coal leader A.J. Taft Sr. dies at 100

By JENNIFER COHRON, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 10/17/17

Andrew Jackson Taft Sr., who worked his way up from humble beginnings to become one of Walker County’s most successful coal executives, died Saturday, …

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Coal leader A.J. Taft Sr. dies at 100


Andrew Jackson Taft Sr., who worked his way up from humble beginnings to become one of Walker County’s most successful coal executives, died Saturday, two months after celebrating his 100th birthday.

Taft is remembered by loved ones and longtime employees of A.J. Taft Coal Company Inc. as a generous, unassuming man who earned the respect of all who met him.

“He would go out of his way to make sure you were OK. He was such a benevolent person. When we had employees who were in need, he would very quietly contribute to help them. He would tell me, ‘It will always come back to you,’” said David Peters, who became a mine superintendent for Taft in 2001.

Taft insisted that employees and customers alike be treated with respect.

“When we sell coal, we sell it on a particular quality. He always told me, ‘Don’t ever send somebody coal that they haven’t bought.’ What he meant by that was don’t send them a quality of lesser value,” Peters said.

Shirley McCoy, Taft's long-time secretary, described him as “humble” and “compassionate.”

Dan McFadden, who went to work for Taft in 1975 and was serving as chief financial officer in 2008 when the company was sold, recalled a compliment that Garry Neil Drummond, the late CEO of Drummond Coal Company, paid to Taft at his 90th birthday party.

Taft was sitting with McFadden and George Barber, who was then the president of Taft Coal Company.

“He said, ‘George, there is only one true gentleman in the mining business, and it ain’t you or me,’” McFadden said.

At its peak, Taft Coal Company employed over 150 people and operated two and sometimes three mines in Walker County simultaneously.

For several years, it was the largest surface mining company in the state after Drummond Coal began mining in South America, according to McFadden.

Taft, who began his career hauling house coal from Cordova to Birmingham during the Great Depression, never let success go to his head.

McFadden recalled a day that he went to one of the company’s mines in search of Taft and found him filling up the Coke machine.

“A salesman came up to him and said, ‘Can you tell me where I can find Mr. Taft?’ He said, ‘Go on in there. He’ll be there in a few minutes.’ Mr. Taft came in the back door, changed out of his overalls into his regular clothes and walked into the office. The guy looked at him and said, ‘Didn’t I just see you?’ It was a big laugh,” McFadden said.

Taft spent his early years on a farm in the Barney community near Cordova.

At a young age, he started helping his father peddle produce. His feet were kept warm on those wagon journeys by rocks that his mother had heated and stored in sacks.

As a young man, he bought a truck and hauled coal that he purchased from H.E. Drummond.

His first underground mine was a hardscrabble operation.

“We started with mules pulling 1-ton cars,” Taft told a writer for The Surface Miner, a trade publication, in 1980. “The coal was maybe 4 feet thick. Production was 100 tons a day with 30 men. After the coal was loaded out, we used hand shovels to load the cars.”

Taft made the move from underground to surface mining in 1969.

In 1980, the company’s two pits were producing 500,000 tons of coal per year.

To maintain success, Taft invested in the latest technology, such as walking draglines from the Bucyrus-Erie Company to reduce the cost of earth removal.

However, efficiency never came at the expense of the company’s employees.

“His employees were more important than the bottom line,” McFadden said.

Taft was not only generous with his employees but also supported numerous causes, including the University of Alabama and the Boy Scouts of America. The latter honored him with a Silver Beaver award in 2008.

Taft was a Godly man who always held steadfast in his faith. He loved his family more than anything, and he spent his final years at his home in Jasper with his wife, Trudie, enjoying time with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Funeral services for Taft are scheduled for Thursday at noon at Sanctuary Church of God. Burial will follow at Walker Memory Gardens.