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A town's history remembered

JIM Law, tall, lean, and as straight as a marine on parade, is something of a celebrity around here. For one thing, he shot a hole in one on a Philadelphia golf course a few weeks after he turned 85. That was 10 years ago. He's also been a delegate to three Democratic conventions, knew personally both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and recalls vividly watching the Wright brothers fly their remarkable airplane around the Statue of Liberty not long after they launched man into the sky at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

In short, Mr. Law has seen a lot of history and has a fount of past experiences to draw on when asked to talk about his hometown -- Wilkes-Barre, the northeastern Pennsylvania city that is finally shucking off its ``dirty little coal town'' image as it reaches for a diversified economy and a firm footing in the years ahead.

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Mr. Law remembers when coal was the only industry in town worth talking about. That was in the 1920s when there were 100,000 mining jobs in surrounding Luzerne County, compared with maybe 200 today. Even at the height of its prosperity the town inevitably looked grubby. Law hated to see the coal industry leave the area after World War II, taking maybe a quarter of the area's jobs (direct and indirect) with it. The future didn't look too bright then, but right now he likes the way things are shaping up. For one thing, the town is a whole lot prettier than it used to be since the cleanup after the flood of 1972. And now that they have found out how to make money out of the culm heaps (waste dumps from the one-time coal-mining operations), it will ``go on getting prettier'' throughout the Wyoming Valley, he believes.

As a gangling 14-year-old, Jim Law signed his apprenticeship papers as a machinist, working six-day weeks for 4 cents an hour. That was in 1904. Since then he's watched ideas come and go and seen changes -- some benign, many wrenching -- take place.

Folks now tell him the computer age will bring this town its most prosperous future yet. He likes the sound of that but reckons he can't comment on it. He does note that there's a special spirit to the people around here, whether they shovel coal, print books, or tap computer keys.

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