Those Guys Were Big Dudes, Part 1 of 2
An Interview with George Kozeliski and Rudy Radosevich
By Bob Rosebrough
For a few years now, George Kozeliski and Rudy Radosevich – both third-generation Croatian Gallupians – have been meeting regularly for breakfast on Saturday mornings at Virgie’s Restaurant. Recently, I asked the two friends to share some of their experiences and stories with me on a Sunday afternoon at Rudy’s house.
Teen brides coming to America Both George and Rudy had grandmothers who came to America as teenage brides around 1890 to 1900. George says, “My Grandmother was fifteen and there was a famine going on in Croatia. She had six older siblings. The two youngest got thrown off the farm because there wasn’t any food so she went to Dubrovnik. She was basically a mail-order bride. I asked her, ‘How could you get on that ship?’ She said, ‘It wasn’t hard. I basically got on or starved to death.’ When they came across the Mediterranean she said they were on a sailboat with smokestacks. It was one of those coal-burning things. They stopped in France and then came through Ellis Island. That’s where they got their names changed. There were a few letters in our name that didn’t exist in the English language. (George laughs) And then they put a tag on them like human luggage. They put them on a train and the conductor knew where to put them off. I asked Grandma ‘How could you marry Grandpa and not know him?’ She said, ‘I met him twice and we got to know each other once we were married.’ (laughs) And I think they were married over sixty years. Back then it was just a survival mode. You were just happy to be alive.” Rudy says, “My grandmother was thirteen – same situation as George. She either starved or got on the ship. I can’t imagine getting on a ship to go five or six thousand miles at thirteen years old and not knowing where you were going to end up.”
Borrowing the still from the sheriff Rudy’s grandfather was one of the many men who died in the coal mines. Rudy says, “My grandmother got a little pension from the mine. Actually it wasn’t a pension. It was a thousand dollars and that was a lot of money. She put it to work by starting a business where my mom and her older brother delivered milk. During prohibition, they resorted to making moonshine. She had a steady clientele and when the feds came to town someone in the sheriff’s department notified all the widows, because there were a lot of widows from the mines. A lot of guys got killed out there. They would let my grandma know and she would take the stills up into the hills until the feds left town and then they were back in business. It was like Mayberry. (Rudy laughs) That’s just the way it was.”
George remembers a story about the sheriff loaning out a still that was being held as evidence. “I just remember my dad was saying that whenever the mash was getting ripe – or however that works – and they needed a still that whoever the sheriff was the deputies would let them come get the still, but they had to bring it back in a week or whenever. (laughs) And they did. The feds or somebody had seized it and they were holding it, but they would let them take it back so they wouldn’t lose their ‘work.’ They would distill their liquor and then take it back.”
Canaries in a coal mine Like virtually every other second- or third-generation Gallupian, George and Rudy tell vivid stories about the hardships of coal mining. George says, “My grandfather told a story about a guy who came here and got off the train at night in winter and before sun up they took him to the mine and he worked for a week and he never saw the sunshine. He asked somebody when he was going to see the sunshine and they said, ‘In the spring.’ So he saved up his money and he went back to Croatia.” (laughs) Rudy says, “I know one old timer here in town, a Hispanic guy, told me when the Slavs came to town they got rid of the mules because the Slavs were cheaper to feed than the mules.” (laughs) George says, “All those guys were big dudes too. I never knew my grandfather Stimac. I understand he was injured really badly and they sent him home and he lingered for two or three months and then he died. My grandfather Kozeliski died of black lung. He died when I was about ten. My entire life to that point, I just remember him in bed sucking oxygen. The Gamerco shaft was kind of the last big one and I remember my grandfather saying they took canaries into the mine with them. My understanding was that if the methane started getting them the canaries would drop off and the miners knew to get out quick.”
The Croatian Cartwrights I ask Rudy and George about the leaders in the Croatian community who stand out in their minds. Rudy says, “My mom’s uncle John Radosevich came through Canada. He had the sawmill up in McGaffey. He was larger than life. He had the bar and he had the sawmill. When Bonanza came out it reminded me of him. He had three sons and they reminded me of the Cartwrights. He had a bunch of land and he worked his kids just like they did. All the Poliches and John Radosevich had sawmills up there. They had the sawmill close to Page that I remember. At first, he was a cook for McGaffey and then he started his own lumber company. He started a second sawmill at Bloomfield Flat and then Box S and then he moved out to where Steve Radosevich is and down to Thoreau for the last place (where it still stands just north of the Thoreau I-40 exit on the west side of the road). They moved it down there because they were thinking of logging the Bluewater area which hadn’t been logged yet.”
George Bubany: a mayor of few words George talks about the man he was named after, George Bubany. “Mr. Bubany had the lumber yard and the bank and an insurance company. He was the mayor, too, even though he didn’t speak English very well. I remember when he was building the Bubany Lumber annex, he was driving a (laughs) big old black Cadillac with big fenders and a visor on it. I always thought that was cool. He always dressed very nice. He lost his fingers – I assume in a saw. You could tell they were cut off. He was just a nice guy; he really was a nice guy. He spoke broken English but he figured out how to make money.”
A memory of Mayor Bubany at a function where he and Jay McCollum (Paul’s father) each spoke stands out in George’s mind, “I don’t know if you knew Jay McCollum. I still remember him. He had silver hair and he was really a good-looking guy and he was very well spoken, and he got up and gave a speech. Mr. Bubany was supposed to follow and he got up there and he stood there for a minute and said, ‘I say what Jay said,’ and he sat down. That is very rare in a politician to say so few words at a public function.”
Coming in April: the McGaffey airplane crash on Mt. Taylor, Slavs helping Slavs, Joe Yurcic and the New York Giants, Frank Kozeliski and the NIT semifinals, wagon trains to Window Rock and, the influenza epidemic of 1918.