NEW TRICKS - Jim Muir went from being a laid-off coal miner to publishing three magazines. His turning point was a phone call to Rend Lake College. Muir is this year's RLC Alumnus of the Year. He is pictured above with Sophie at High Road Publications headquarters in Sesser. CLICK HERE for a larger image.
INA, Ill. – Nineteen years ago, a mine coordinator at Old Ben Coal Mine #21 in Sesser walked up to a bulletin board, put a thumb tack in a piece of paper, and delivered the news to hundreds of coal miners that in two months time they would be looking for work. One of those miners was a 6-3, rough-around-the-edges, 37-year-old named James Lee Muir. He had worked there since five days after his 18th birthday. It was the only career he had ever known.
“I remember the day I saw the 60-day notice that the mine was going to shut down,” he said. “There were a lot of guys, I could see fear on their faces. But I really wasn’t afraid. It was almost exciting for me. I thought, now is the time to put up or shut up. I didn’t look at it as something bad, but more like an opportunity to do something.”
Now 56, the once laid-off coal miner (Muir worked a variety of jobs like shuttle car operator, belt maintenance worker, belt shoveler, utility tractor operator, prep plant worker, top laborer and plant repairman) has become an awarding-winning writer, broadcaster and owner of not one, but three magazines through his corporation, High Road Publications. On Dec. 3, at the Rend Lake College Foundation Annual Dinner, the Class of ‘97 graduate will add “RLC Alumnus of the Year” to his list of honors.
“I called Rend Lake College the very next day [after the mine closed]. Somebody might think I’m blowing smoke, but I really mean it when I say that the phone call I made to Rend Lake College changed my life. ... It set the stage for everything.”
He could have waited to start school in the Fall, but he’s never been the kind to wait around. Instead, he signed up for Summer courses.
“I always did feel like, not only was there something I could do, but there was something I would do. And I knew whatever I was going to be doing, I wanted to get started doing it.”
He said he met some great people who gave him confidence at RLC and that every good thing that has happened goes back to the initial phone he made to the college.
He mentioned two instrumental faculty members from the college – retired English Professor Mike Mullen and Vice President of Academic Instruction Christina Kuberski, who was an instructor before becoming chair of the liberal arts division. Kuberski was Muir’s speech instructor when he came through RLC in the late ‘90s. He will never forget her telling him to use his talent to pursue a career in speaking and writing. He said it was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to him. Muir took it to heart.
“She was right on the money,” he said. “I always look at that as kind of a turning point for me.”
Before Rend Lake College, Muir hadn’t written anything for public consumption. That all changed after he contacted Mullen about a spot on the RLC Times campus newspaper.
“He gave me a chance,” Muir said. “I told him, ‘If I can’t do it, I’ll tell you I can’t do it.’”
Muir did just fine. Mullen gave him some assignments, liked what he saw, and asked him to come back to the paper his sophomore year. Mullen eventually helped him get a scholarship and, as the professor’s student writer came closer to becoming an RLC graduate, turned him on to a part-time opening as a writer for the Benton Evening News. At the time, Muir was working three part-time jobs, one of which was a serendipitous custodial position at the newspaper.
“So, I met the publisher one night while I was in there cleaning. He gave me a part-time job and I started stringing, covering grade school and high school board meetings. ... I kept my job as a janitor.”
Not for long. Muir worked his way up to a full-time position as city editor of the Evening News. He gave a lot of credit for this to editor Danny Malkovich who helped him get a job there. Eight years later, Muir was offered a position at the Southern Illinoisan where he worked as a news reporter and columnist for years before embarking on his new adventure in running three magazines.
Somewhere in there – before becoming a publisher – Muir took a trip to Wal-Mart. It would introduce him to a whole new way to reach his audience – a microphone.
“I got the opportunity to work with a guy named Mike Mitchell who was doing play-by-play Benton sports on the radio. I actually ran into him at Wal-Mart. We were talking about high school sports for a while and he asked if I would be interested in a spot on a high school sports show.”
A year into “Talking Sports” – later named “Saturday Morning Talking Sports” – Mitchell left and Dana Withers with Withers Broadcasting turned the show over to Muir, who re-branded the program for a regional market. He continues to offer local sports fan fare, Saturday mornings on WQRL 106.3FM, which is now a year-round program in its 15th year with Muir. He and the WQRL team broadcast more than 100 Benton Rangers football, basketball and baseball games each year.
“Dana has been good to me throughout the years,” he said. “She gave me the kind of opportunities to expand programs that other FM stations don’t.”
Muir loves his sports – St. Louis Cardinals in particular. Just a quick glance into his home office is all one needs to realize that. But that side is not the only one he shows Southern Illinois. As the voice of “Sound Off” on WQRL Wednesday nights, Muir introduces local listeners to hot button issues in the area and across the state. The program that started from scratch has twice been named Best Public Affairs Program by the Illinois Broadcasters Association. He is proud of that.
“To know that it started from nothing and within only a few years achieved that ... It’s nice when you are recognized.”
That’s especially true when the first time the little show from Benton won the award was in Chicago. It won again in Springfield, he added.
Muir won the Southern Illinois Editorial Association’s Charlie Feirich Original Column Award twice. The award, which recognizes columnists’ work from Effingham south, had not been awarded twice to the same writer before Muir, nor has it since.
“I don’t know how to describe it. ...Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop,” he explained.
He had a new perspective on the world. He began to see the storyline in everything and grew to love the work of digging for the stories that needed to be written. Muir has a natural ability to draw every ounce of humanity from a story and deliver it in a neat package to his readers. Of the thousands of stories and columns he has written, a few key columns hold a special place in his heart.
“I wrote one right after my dad died about cleaning out his garage. There I was going through a man’s life, finding pictures of him when he was 19, pictures I had never seen, from before I was ever alive. That column meant a lot to me.”
Another column he wrote was about going to meet the people who bought his parents’ home, realizing as he reached for the front door that he could no longer just walk right on in. He also wrote one about keeping Christ in Christmas that elicited support from people in 20 different states, even France.
In August of 2007, Muir launched Southern Illinois Sports Connection, which is now circulated on store racks, in offices, between readers and in 55 high schools from Massac County to Centralia and Chester to Carmi.
A year later he would purchase Marion Living Magazine, and in July of this year he signed a contract to publish Saluki Illustrated, the official magazine of Southern Illinois University Athletics. Now in it’s fourth month, Saluki Illustrated is distributed in Carbondale, Murphysboro, Marion, West Frankfort, Benton and Mt. Vernon. Muir said distribution is constantly expanding.
In less than two years, Muir went from publishing nothing to pumping out more than 15,000 magazines each month to readers in 12 counties through High Road Publications.
“It’s kind of been an unbelievable run,” he said.
Through it all, there is one constant that keeps this ex-coal miner fired up.
“The people of Southern Illinois. They have a quality you can’t find anywhere else. They are hardworking and they love Southern Illinois.”
It takes a supporting cast to pull off his schedule of producing three magazines and eight radio shows each month. He credited a lot of his success and accomplishments to his wife, Lisa, and the fact that they are together. Credit also goes out to their six children – four girls and two boys who range in age from 30 down to 15, he said. The Muirs also have a granddaughter and two more grandchildren on the way.
“It’s a very big family and they are very, very supportive,” he said. “God has really smiled on me in many, many parts of my life. I feel very blessed and I know where my blessings come from. ... I always say God watches after idiots and little children. And I’m no child.”
Apparently Muir can put health on the list of blessings too. He claims to be “disgustingly healthy” and full of energy without requiring much sleep. With that in mind, he doesn’t see business slowing down at all. In fact, he is considering venturing into another publication at the first of the year.
“I’m going to keep rolling, as long as I feel good doing what I’m doing. I don’t tend to slow down.”
He had worked 19 and a half years at the Old Ben mine – just six months shy of the 20 required for health insurance benefits. In 1994, Muir made the difficult choice to turn around and finish what he started. He took a leave of absence from writing and was hired back on at Old Ben – this time in Coulterville – and worked 12 months of straight midnight shifts, driving 60 miles one way to work. He said it was the longest year of his life. But, looking back, the 20-year-member of the United Mine Workers of America says the benefits are worth it.
“At the time I was driving to Coulterville on midnight shifts, it didn’t seem like it was worth it at all,” he laughed.
“It was kind of overwhelming,” Muir said of getting the news that he is RLC’s next Alumnus of the Year. “I attend the Foundation Annual Dinner on a regular basis and have throughout the years. Knowing the kind of people who are picked for this award and what they have accomplished, to be mentioned in that group is humbling. It’s an honor. I think it means more to me because Rend Lake College means so much to me.”
Muir will join a distinguished list of 27 past RLC Alumnus of the Year recipients. The list dates back to 1982 and includes David Junkins in 1982 (Class of ‘71), Robert Brown in 1983 (Class of ‘66), Dr. Leslie Johnson in 1984 (Class of ‘74), Dr. Harl E. Ryder Jr. (Class of ‘58), Dr. Gary R. Sweeten (Class of ‘60), Dr. Mary Kay Witges Bengtson (Class of ‘71), Carol Dilley-Jaudes (Class of ‘75), Kevin Davis (Class of ‘72), Gloria J. Sloan-Reel (Class of ‘74), Craig M. Sinclair (Class of ‘74), Cinda Chullen (Class of ‘79), Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski (Class of ‘75), Flo Dudley (Class of ‘76), Courtney Cox (Class of ‘72), Tim Wills (Class of ‘84), Jonathan W. Thomas (Class of ‘71), Mark Michalic (Class of ‘78), Laird D. Wisely (Class of ‘71), Holly McCann (Class of ‘76), Carl Rowley (Class of ‘77), Rose M. Myles (Class of ‘68), Donald H. Dame (Classes of ‘72 and ‘76), Linda L. Sanders (Class of ‘82), Bill Shields (Class of ‘58), Christopher Johnson (Class of ‘98), Brad Gesell (Class of ‘80) and Randy Rubenacker last year (Class of ‘78).
Muir’s advice to RLC students and graduates is to find their turning point.
“Life can change in so many different directions,” he said. “Don’t get locked in thinking you have to do one thing. ... I worked at a job for 19 years and my life changed 180 degrees. Set your goals, follow your dreams and stay away from negative people. Get away from them as fast as you can.”