A Woman Coal Miner Dies, and Her Husband Braves Neighbors' Wrath to Fight for a Widower's Mite
The tragedy set off tremors above-ground. When Marilyn's husband, Alan, applied for death benefits, the state turned him down. A Pennsylvania law guarantees compensation to widows but does not mention widowers. Alan claimed he was a victim of discrimination based on sex (Pennsylvania ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972). He sued both the state and his late wife's employer, the Rushton Mining Co. During a pretrial hearing, Rushton agreed to pay McCusker and Marilyn's 17-year-old son by a previous marriage, Michael Williams, a total of $227 a week. It is the same amount a widow with one child would receive under Pennsylvania law. In addition, Alan and Michael each got $12,000 from company-purchased life insurance. McCusker dropped his legal action. (Seven months before Marilyn died the state legislature had begun rewriting the law, but the bill has been stalled in committee.)
Meanwhile McCusker's stepson has moved to upstate New York to live with relatives. Rushton sends him $135 a week and the rest, $92, goes to Alan. However, when Michael turns 18, Alan becomes the sole beneficiary.
McCusker, 28, appears to have won, but in doing so he became a pariah in his hometown of Utahville, Pa. Always a controversial figure, he had a reputation for hard drinking even before he met Marilyn in 1974, while she was visiting friends in nearby Coalport. A nurse's aide in Utica, N.Y., she was seven years older than Alan.
They were married in December 1975. "I didn't think it was going to last," Alan says now. "It was rough. I was always drinking and she was always accusing me of trying to bed every girl in town."
The son of a local steelworker, Alan never held a job for more than a year. He tried logging, bartending and carpentry. Marilyn worked steadily, first in a nursing home and then as a barmaid, but she wanted to be a miner because the wages were so much higher. In 1975 she and three other women sued Rushton, charging discrimination. In 1977 they won an out-of-court settlement which gave them jobs and some $30,000 each. Although there are more than 3,000 women miners in the U.S. today (and 140,000 men), Rushton was among the last companies to give in.
"Marilyn cried when she got her first paycheck," Alan recalls. "It was for $350, two weeks' pay, the most money she'd ever brought home." The couple began planning their dream house, and Alan quit his carpentry job to build it. He stopped drinking, and the marriage improved.
The seven-room solar-heated house stands unfinished. McCusker stopped working on it for three months after Marilyn died. But he was not idle. Among other projects, he sold the rights to his personal "love story" to a TV movie company for $77,500 (he's received $7,000 so far).
Alan now has a part-time job as an insurance claims investigator, but says he is broke. "I blew almost everything," he admits. A co-worker of Marilyn's says heatedly, "Everyone feels he took her for all he could." Townspeople disapproved of his letting her work while he quit his own job. Now they have another complaint—that he didn't "hold his own," the miners' way of saying he has talked about the accident to "outsiders," mainly the press. McCusker claims, "I have been shot at and they pick on me in taverns. They want to kick my ass."
He is dating an unemployed factory worker now but insists he still grieves for Marilyn. "I wore my wedding band for three months after the accident," Alan says. "They should never put 'Till death do us part' on rings. You don't stop loving someone just because they're dead."