Skubitz recalls family's role in early area history

February 6, 2000

By Nikki Patrick
Morning Sun Family Living Editor

One of the women at the forefront of the December 1921 "Amazon Army" march was Mary Skubitz, mother of former U.S. Rep. Joe Skubitz, who represented the 5th District of Kansas from 1963 to 1979.

She wrote a journal recounting the experiences of the wives, sisters and daughters of coal miners who marched through Crawford County to help their men obtain fair pay and safer working conditions.

That journal, lost for many years, is now in the hands of Linda Knoll, Pittsburg USD 250 gifted program instructor. She obtained it during a recent visit with Joe Skubitz at his Wichita home.

"Gene DeGruson knew about the journal, and Joe had promised to give it to him, but didn't know just where it was in all his papers and scrapbooks," Knoll said. "I only wish that Gene were still with us to read and enjoy this fascinating account of the march."

Making the trip to Wichita with her Jan. 13 were Cherri Hudson, PAACA/Pittsburg Arts Council executive director Karen Brady and students Caleb Hoyer, Pittsburg Middle School, and Brad Dunkin, Girard High School.

Skubitz, a schoolteacher and principal before his political career, taught Dunkin's grandfather, John Martin, at Arma.

Meeting the group at the Skubitz home was Lawrence artist Wayne Wildcat and his wife, Tolly. Wildcat is working with students of Pittsburg High School art teacher Connie Sarwinski to create a mural of the Amazon Army.

In addition to obtaining the journal, the group taped a four-hour interview with the former congressman, 92, about his experiences growing up in the Little Balkans.

He was born in Frontenac, son of Joe and Mary Skubitz. Both parents had a strong interest in the political and economic problems around them.

"My parents were both Socialists," Skubitz said. "One of them later became a Democrat, and to spite them both, I became a Republican. In our family we all had our own ideas, and we would argue them around the dinner table."

The elder Skubitz, a native of Slovenia, worked for a time in the coal mines, firing shots or squids -- small explosive charges. This could be very dangerous, Skubitz explained.

"There's lots of coal dust in the mine, and if a shot misfired and lit the coal dust, it could explode," he said. "I don't remember a month, or even a two-week period, when the whistle didn't blow because there had been an explosion in a mine. Pa got burned in an explosion -- the only thing that saved his life was that he got knocked into a sump hole."

Fortunately, his father was able to get out of mines and later operated a grocery store in Ringo. "It was a two-story building -- we had one more story than anybody else," Skubitz said.

His father was a kindly man who frequently extended credit to his customers. "All Pa had was paper notes from his customers, but as long as he got enough to pay his bills and eat, that was all he cared about," Skubitz said.

His mother was deeply respected by the other women and was frequently called upon to speak for them. "She spoke better English than anybody else in the camps," Skubitz said.

She also spoke Austrian, German, some Slovene and Italian. Because of her fluency in all these languages, Mrs. Skubitz frequently served as a court-approved interpreter in cases involving immigrants who spoke little or no English.

"Mom was a great person, and I deeply respected her," Skubitz said. "She always stood up for what she thought was right."

One of the times she did that was the Amazon Army march. Her son didn't go on the march, but vividly remembers being awakened at 2 or 3 a.m. by his mother before she started out.

"She said, 'Joey, wake up, I've got to go to Franklin,' and then she gave me my instructions," he said. "When I got up I was to put in 30 minutes practicing on the piano, and then was to fix the bread. Well, my hands were dirty, so while I was working the bread dough I kept trying to cover up my dirty fingerprints. When that bread was baked and sliced, the inside looked like potica from all the dirt."

Skubitz said he really didn't want to compare the Amazon Army women with modern feminists, who are concerned with issues such as equal pay and career opportunities. The Amazons, he said, had more basic concerns.

"Hunger drove most of those women," he said. "They just wanted something to eat and a house."

In the women's meeting that Mrs. Skubitz called at Franklin, the plan was formulated to march on the coal mines and prevent non-union miners from going in to work. According to some accounts, there were 300 women at the meeting in Franklin, but the number of marchers grew as they proceeded through the county. There is no exact count, but some estimate that as many as 3,000 women may have participated in the protest.

"My mother was usually at the front of the march, because she could speak better than the others," Skubitz said.

At one mine, the boss threatened to turn a water hose on the women. At Mine No. 21, Weir Coal Company, the mine foreman, James Delany "acted very manly" and promised to bring up what few men were working down in the mine.

"In a very short time the men made their appearance at the top of the cage hole," Mrs. Skubitz wrote in her journal. "I never seen a more frightened lot of men in my life."

Three of the men were African-American miners who had recently been brought to the area to take the jobs of striking workers. After Mrs. Skubitz explained the situation to them, one of the men said that if she would only hold back the women, they would leave. She wrote, "they turned to me, thanked us, shook hands and were allowed to go to the wash house to get clothing and left, shouting back 'we are with you women, go after them.' "

In Gross, a full shift was working in the mine pit. According to Mrs. Skubitz the women "rolled down to the pits like balls and the men ran like deers." Hampered by their narrow skirts, the women "grabbed the bottom of their skirts, pulling them up together in trouser form and ran like wild after them."

Mrs. Skubitz eventually was arrested, charged with violence and placed under a bond to keep the peace. As leader of the march, she also spent a night in jail.

A better future

Besides food and housing, the women of the time were concerned about the future of their children, and determined that they would have a chance to do more than risk their lives in the coal mines.

"My mother said to my father that they would never be able to leave me anything, but if they gave me an education, nobody could ever steal it from me," Skubitz said. "Many of the women felt that same way about getting an education for their children."

Skubitz attended Girard High School. "Geometry and Latin almost got me, but I was a good student otherwise," He said. "I was at the center of all the activities -- football, basketball, track, vocal music and debate."

He put his piano lessons to good use, getting $1.25 an hour to play for dances in Capaldo. "My dad was so proud of me being able to play that they let them use the dance hall for nothing. I got started at 9 p.m. and stayed the night," Skubitz said. "At my first dance, around 11 p.m. or midnight, someone turned the lights off. When the lights came back on, a man had his throat cut from ear to ear. You should have seen me make my escape -- I went through a window that wasn't even open. I was about 12 or 13 at the time."

He graduated from high school in 1925. He combined his college education with teaching. He attended night classes and summer school at Pittsburg State Teachers College, now Pittsburg State University, while working full time as principal at Arma High School. He got his bachelor's degree in 1929, and in 1932 earned a master's degree, again by attending night classes and summer school while being employed as Hepler High School principal.

In 1946 he earned a law degree from the George Washington University Law School. "My mother always wanted me to be a lawyer," Skubitz said.

Leaving education, Skubitz worked as an administrative assistant to Sen. Clyde Reed, and held a similar position with Sen. Andrew Schoeppel.

But, when he was approached about running for Congress, Skubitz was at first reluctant.

He remembered the ethnic slurs he had heard years before while growing up in the Little Balkans, noting that the immigrants had brought with them all the conflicts and prejudice they had known at home in Europe.

"I was called a 'hunk,' " he said bluntly. "This stayed with me all those years, until I ran for Congress."

He credits his beloved wife, the late Jess Skubitz, with giving him the push he needed to launch his campaign. "She asked me, 'Daddy, are you afraid to run for Congress?' Well, no man wants to look like a coward to his wife, so I decided to run."

He was elected, and served until retiring in 1979. "I was the first Slovene to represent Kansas in a foreign country," he said proudly. "When I visited in Yugoslavia, they shook my hand and said, 'Mr. Skubitz, welcome home."

Skubitz has other accomplishments to his credit during his years in Congress. He was one of those instrumental in having the Old Fort at Fort Scott made part of the National Park Service. His interest in historic preservation also led him to work for the establishment of the Piscataway Park across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. Because of the park, the view from Mount Vernon remains essentially the same as it was when Washington lived there.

Skubitz also intervened when the Atomic Energy Commission proposed to store atomic waste in Kansas salt mines near Lyons.

Still alert and active, Skubitz lives in Wichita just a few minutes away from the home of his only son, Dan Skubitz. He loves chatting with visitors and continues to follow the fortunes of Girard and Frontenac High School athletic teams.

He's also got plans to write a history of Kansas. "I've been a history major twice, and I've never been satisfied with the way Kansas history has been written," he said.

Skubitz has been invited to be in Girard on April 30 for the formal unveiling of Wayne Wildcat's mural depicting the Amazon Army and area coal miners.

"My wife and I mine history for art," Wildcat said.

"We love it that Wayne's art has been a catalyst for bringing out history," Tolly Wildcat added. "We're so glad to bring some honor to forgotten heroes like the miners and the women of the Amazon Army, including Mary Skubitz."

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