Walter Reuther

Wheeling Intelligencer
May 11, 1970

Walter Reuther Killed in Jet Crash

UAW Loses Chief Bargainer In Death of Wheeling Native

By Frederick Gray
Associated Press Writer

Pellston, Mich. (AP) - Walter P. Reuther, leader of 1.6 million United Auto Workers and a giant of American labor, and his wife and four other persons died Saturday night when their chartered jet aircraft crashed and burned. The executive type jet crashed on its rain-swept approach to the airport at Pellston. Authorities said it broke through scattered clouds at 400 feet, clipped a tree top, and then 271 feet farther along came down in a ball of flame. The wreckage was found in a clump of woods 1 1/2 miles southwest of the airport.

There were no survivors.

Reuther, 62, one-time AFL-CIO vice president who was chosen last month for a new two-year term as president of the UAW, had planned to drive from Pellston to his union's $15 million family education center now nearing completion on Black Lake in norther Lower Michigan. The plane was en route from Detroit.

The liberal-oriented, red-haired Reuther led his union to many breakthroughs in industrial contracts, including "a guaranteed annual income" and cost of living wage increases.

Originally a tool and die apprentice, he was a participant in the then sensational sit-down strikes of the 1930s that won auto industry recognition of the fledgling union that was to grow into a giant headed by him.

Killed with Reuther and his wife, May, 59, in the twin-engine six-passenger Lear jet were Oskar Stonorov, a Philadephia architect who designed the education center; William Wolfman, 29, Reuther's bodyguard and Mrs. Reuther's nephew; the pilot, George Evans, and the co-pilot, Joseph Karaffa, both of Columbus, Ohio.

Clarence Tatro, airport manager, said the pilot was given weather conditions and permission to land in a radio exchange at 9:33 p.m., and there was no subsequent message from the aircraft.

Emanuel Suarez, who lives three-quarters of a mile from the crash scene, said he heard a plane flying low overhead and then suddenly nothing.

The lull caused suspicion, Suarez said, so he went to a window "and saw a tremendous flash." He rushed to the scene but the heat of the burning plane kept him back. When the flames finally were extinguished only a piece of the plane's tail remained uncharred.

Reuther had survived earlier brushes with death during his sometimes stormy career. A would-be assassin's bullet shattered his right arm on April 20, 1948, and 10 years earlier he had thwarted an attempt to take him on a no-return, gangland-style ride.

His death robs the UAW of its chief bargainer with new contract negotiations with the Big Three automakers - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - only two months away in a year beset by lagging auto sales and a clamor of workers for more money to override inflation.

Reuther had headed the union since 1946.

Under the UAW's constitution, Secretary-Treasurer Emil Mazey, 56, takes over temporary leadership of the UAW.

Reuther had pulled out of the AFL-CIO in 1968, climaxing his running feud with AFL-CIO President George Meany, who Reuther accused of permitting the labor movement to "vegetate" under what he termed "a stand-pat leadership."

Between them they forged the AFL-CIO 14 1/2 years ago, giving labor its first united front since John L. Lewis pulled out his United Mine Workers in 1937 and founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations as a rival to the American Federation of Labor.

Meany headed the AFL-CIO and Reuther was its vice president until his union withdrew.

Meany was among the first Sunday to issue a statement, saying Reuther had made "a unique and lasting contribution to the United Auto Workers, the American labor movement and the nation."

"We had disagreements, but we worked together as well, and this morning," Meany added, "it is the latter that stands out in my memory."

Reuther's death also brought statements from a host of other unions, industry and government officials citing his contribution to the labor movement.

Since its pullout from AFL-CIO, the UAW had joined the two million Teamsters and the smaller United Chemical Workers Union to form the Alliance for Labor Action, with the announced aim of "organizing the unorganized and the working poor."

The Reuthers' survivors include two daughters, Linda, 27, a school teacher in San Francisco, and Lisa, 22, a student at Oakland University, Rochester, Mich.; his 88-year-old mother, Mrs. Valentine Reuther; his two brothers, Victor, who heads the UAW's international affairs department, and Theodore, Wheeling, W.Va., and his sister, Mrs. Eugene Richey, Reading, Mass.

Reuther was a tool and die maker by trade after dropping out of high school to work because his father had died.

In 1933, he was fired from Ford for his union activities and together with his brother Victor went on a bicycling trip in Europe.

They eventually got to the soviet [sic] Union where they took jobs in an automobile factory built under Ford's supervision.

The brothers returned to the U.S. and Walter took a job as a tool and die maker in Detroit where he met the former Mary Wolf.

They were married March 13, 1936. She quit her job as a Detroit school teacher to join her husband in helping to organize workers on Detroit's west side for the then small and struggling United Auto Workers.

Giant of Unionism Began Work Here

By Thomas Sterling
Of The Intelligencer Staff

Walter Reuther, one of the most distinguished names in the history of this nation's labor unions, began what was to become a life-long campaign for giving the working man a square deal here in Wheeling at the tender age of 15.

Whether or not the bodies would be returned to Reuther's native city has not been determined and probably will not be before Monday, according to an informed source in Detroit.

He said that the bodies of the victims were badly burned and that an autopsy would be performed Monday in University Hospital at Ann Arbor.

At that precocious age, Reuther dropped out of Wheeling High School to become an apprentice tool and die maker at Wheeling Steel Corp. He was fired from his job for organizing a protest against Sunday work.

In 1923 the overriding reason for his protest against working conditions at Wheeling Steel was the loss of an opportunity to attend lively debate sessions conducted by his father on social reform.

To Reuther, labor leadership had never meant the old-fashioned approach to "getting a few cents for the boys." Rather, he tried, during his tenure to involve labor in the great political and social movements of the nation.

Reuther's early childhood in Wheeling spawned an interest in unions and labor problems. His father, who had been head of the Wheeling Brewers Union and later president of the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, would convene the five Reuther children on Sunday afternoon and let brother argue with brother on the issue of the day.

Although he left Wheeling when he was 19, Reuther returned to West Virginia many times, and just last year returned to speak at Wheeling College commencement exercises.

In that take, he told students, "You have a responsibility in the world community to transform the 20th technological century into the 21st century of human fulfillment."

Reuther had been invested with the hood and colors symbolic of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by the Very Rev. Frank R. Haig, S.J., president of Wheeling College.

Reuther called upon the 1969 graduates to give sense of purpose to their living to make life meaningful, so that they would stand with courage at the time of testing and not at the time of convenience.

Reuther reflected on a variety of subjects at the commencement exercises, among them President Richard M. Nixon and former President John F. Kennedy.

He reaffirmed his dedication to a free society and a philosophy that the preaching of 2,000 years ago of the brotherhood of man remained relevant today.

Reuther was eulogized Sunday by top union leaders in West Virginia as "a great leader" of his generation, and officials everywhere reacted sadly to his death in a Michigan airplane crash.

"It's a tragic loss to the country, and certainly to the American workers in the labor movement," declared Miles Stanley of Charleston, president of the West Virginia Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

"He was a great leader in this generation, whose vision and foresight has done much to improve the living standards of American workers and, indeed, workers throughout the world," Stanley added.

United Mine Workers District 6 president Thomas Williams reflected that the last time he met Reuther was at the Wheeling College commencement exercises last summer.

"This is certainly a tragic loss to all labor," Williams noted.

Another unionist, Paul Fox, president of the only UAW affiliate in the Mountain State, Local 348, envisioned a "crisis" in the national group from Reuther's death.

Fox said Reuther had many ideas for social change that would improve society, if someday carried out, and he referred to Reuther as "a man with no parallel in the labor movement."

"There is no way to set a price for losing him," Fox added.

L. J. Pnakovich, president of District 31 of the United Mine Workers of America, commented in Fairmont, "I just think it's a tragic event for the auto workers."

Because he was a native West Virginian, Reuther may have held a special spot in his heart for the plight of the many poverty-infested families of the state.

"The rest of the world will judge us not by what we have," he said, "but by how we use it."

Nixon Mourns Loss of UAW Leadership

Washington (UPI) - President Nixon mourned the death of United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther Sunday as "a deep loss not only for organized labor but also for the cause of collective bargaining and the entire American process."

In a statement issued at the White House, Nixon also said:

"He was a man who was devoted to his cause, spoke for it eloquently and worked for it tirelessly. While he was outspoken and controversial, even those who disagreed with him had great respect for his ability, integrity and persistence.

"For the Reuther family, the tragedy of this day is compounded by the death of Mrs. Reuther. Mrs. Nixon joins me in offering our heartfelt sympathy to them, and in expressing the hope that the memory of Walter Reuther's great achievements, with the constant help of his wife, will sustain them at this sad time."

Randolph Lauds Walter Reuther, Wheeling Native

Washington (AP) - Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W. Va., Sunday praised union leader Walter Reuther after hearing of his accidental death.

"Walter Reuther, a native of West Virginia, will be recognized in the years ahead as one of the truly great leaders of American labor unionism," said Randolph, second-ranking member of the Senate's Labor Committee.

"He was often at odds with other segments of the AFL-CIO but no one could doubt his sincerity and his overriding desire to provide progressive programs for the workers under his leadership and for this country generally," Randolph said.

Reuther was born in Wheelign [sic], W. Va., and began his career in the Mountain State.


West Virginia Archives and History