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Logan Ray Kitzmiller, trustee, United Steelworkers Local 676, representing workers at Verso’s paper mill in Luke, Md. (shared by Len Shendel)

Luke Strong

“It’s in the worst of circumstances that we are afforded the opportunity to see the best in each other and in ourselves. This display of world-class human nature can be witnessed right now within the boundaries of the Luke Mill. The ever-present fear of a day that we cease to exist as we have for 131 years has come to pass, and one would naturally expect an unsavory, unbecoming reaction from the 675 souls within as a result.

However, this is most certainly not the case. From an outside perspective this would be perceived as an anomalous result, but to those 675 men and women, it is the only acceptable way of handling this. We were, and are, the best at what we do. We know this with every fiber in our bodies, and we choose to act as such until we are relieved of our posts. Nothing binds us to this, mind you; it is our personal choice as a collective body. We do not require hired security forces to watch our every move, or measures to be put in place to prevent defiant behavior. We are better than that by far.

This is our house, and we will treat it with the respect it deserves until the very last moment. Being a part of this group, it is impossible to quantify the pride of who we are, or the blood, sweat, tears and dedication it took to get here, to anyone on the outside looking in. This is simply the nature of the Luke Mill. This is how we do business. This is how we choose to be thought of in the world outside. In the worst-case scenario, this is how we want to be remembered.

In the coming days, we will make our last walks down the same beaten paths to our jobs as they stand in their current form; perhaps our last walks down those paths forever. However, the title of “job” is a poor and insufficient descriptor of what is currently being ripped from our hands, against our will. Jobs have no value beyond the monetary gain that you achieve from performing them. Jobs are always available and being offered; jobs are a dime a dozen.

The Luke Mill is something invaluable that we all hold in our hearts, minds and souls, and always will, far beyond our tenure here. Our lives have been enriched by being a part of something magnificent that everyone contributed to and took equal shares of the pride that comes with a job well done. Skills were learned and developed through gainful employment, doing something we were fully invested in. Our individual families were expanded immensely due solely to the closeness and familiarity we share with each other. A person couldn’t hope for a better support system and we are united and eternally bound together. We had something rare and beautiful among the pale blue buildings of a quiet corner of Western Maryland and West Virginia.

What describes our employment at the Luke Mill, then? While many words are fitting, if I were forced to quantify this mill in one word, I would say it is a legacy. We are comprised of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters and innumerable other family and personal ties. We are represented by multiple generations of families, neighbors and friends. Not only represented, but represented admirably. Problems, tensions and ideologies that commonly suppress societies are not present within our mill community. Borders and barriers that cause schisms and prevent the unity and strength that so many long for are not relevant here. While this may seem utopian and fantastical to some, it is merely a way of life for us. We are a family, and we are strong, resilient and unified; even in our darkest hour.

After the dust has settled, and life has moved on to whatever chapters we will choose to write next in our individual histories, what we have and what we carry with us from the Luke Mill can never be stripped away. While forces beyond our control may be able to take so much, there is no amount of power that can rend us of what is printed on the very fabric of who we are. Vincent Van Gogh once stated, “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”

There is no better quote to describe the people of the Luke Mill and our surrounding communities.

We are, collectively, lovers of many things, many ideas, many interests, and many people. We participate in our schools, charities, churches, sports leagues, local governments and organizations with grateful hearts, fervent passion and an unquenchable desire to constantly improve the world around us. We support others when it is needed and are not too proud to ask for the support of another when our own tears must be shed.

The Luke Mill has built a legacy of strength off of broad shoulders, unwavering pride in our work, who we are as a community, all that we have done to get here, and, most of all, a deep, admirable and all-encompassing love for one another, what we do and how it directly affects our community. A great book that reaches to the scale of a true epic has already been written in a small, oft-forgotten part of the world named Luke.

However, we know and believe that much of this story is yet to be written. As we conclude our current chapter, a stone has been cast into the waters, creating ripples that will begin the foundations of many chapters yet to come. Some ripples will, hopefully, begin again in the Luke Mill, while others will start composing a new story in other communities and businesses.

Regardless of the locations and storylines to follow, know that the world will forever be a better place anywhere that an employee of Luke walks. We are stronger than adversity. We are stronger than the challenges that lie before us. We are stronger than any adversary that may rise against us. We are Luke Strong.”