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‘That’s just a special human being’: Bob Huggins Fish Fry to feature art from former coal miner

MORGANTOWN—Despite living much of his life on the other side of the U.S., Thomas Elmo Williams has never forgotten his Appalachian roots.

“I paint what I know, which is working-class people,” Williams said. “And I tell everybody, no matter where I’m at, I’m proud to be from West Virginia.”

Williams, an artist and former coal miner residing in Helper, Utah, grew up in Glen Dale. An original oil-on-canvas painting from Williams and a print are just a few of the items set to be auctioned at the annual Bob Huggins Fish Fry. The event is a fundraiser for the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment Fund and Remember the Miners Scholarship Fund. 

Typically, the event is held at Mylan Park, with more than 1,500 people attending. Because of COVID-19, the event will be held virtually this year, broadcast from Triple S Harley-Davidson in Morgantown. It will be broadcast from 7-9 p.m. Feb. 26.

The event will feature special guests, including Dave Portnoy from Barstool Sports, Da’Sean Butler and Fran Fraschilla.

“You can think of it really like you are going to be watching a TV show,” said Cory Chambers, director of annual giving through the WVU Cancer Institute. “We are going to have a whole production set up.”

Chambers said although Williams no longer lives in West Virginia, he is a West Virginian and organizers were more than happy to tie his piece into the auction. He said Williams’ story is one that resonates with many.

A print from Thomas Elmo Williams will be auctioned during the annual Bob Huggins Fish fry along with his original oil on canvas painting.

In high school, Williams took a coal mining class, although he swore to himself he would never become a coal miner. Williams later went to work at the Fostoria Glass Co. in Moundsville, and in 1977, he traveled to Utah to visit his sister and never left.

Once settled in Utah, Williams took a job in the coal mines. Years later, he was injured in an industrial accident and was no longer able to work.

“I had no clue what I was going to do,” Williams said. “So, I went back to school.”

Thomas Elmo Williams.

That is where Williams met his life partner, David Richey Johnsen. Williams always enjoyed sketching,and would often sketch his friends in the coal mines. When Johnsen saw Williams’ sketches for the first time, he knew Williams had talent. 

“He said, ‘My lord, if you can sketch like this, you can paint’, and I laughed at him,” Williams said. 

Williams said he was once told if he applied the same work ethic to painting as he did in the coal mines, at the glass factory and even in his youth, he could become an amazing artist.

Williams took those words to heart. He began painting what he knew best — laborers. Most of Williams’ paintings portray scenes in the coal mines, and every time Williams’ brush touches a canvas, memories of his friends from the mines come to life. 

By 1994, Williams held his first art show at the Rio Grande Train Station in Salt Lake City, Utah. From then on, Williams’ art shows over the course of 17 years always sold out. His paintings have been sold from galleries in Beverly Hills to buyers abroad all over the world. Much of the money he made from his work was used to support coal miner charities.

One day, Williams was working in his art gallery, when he looked up and saw four men on motorcycles.

“They said, ‘Okay, which one of these artists is the hillbilly from West Virginia?’,” Williams said. “And I said, ‘I am, sir, and I’m proud of it.’”

The person speaking to Williams was Cliff Sutherland, co-owner of Triple S Harley-Davidson. Williams spent hours talking with them, and exchanged contact information before they parted ways.

Because the fish fry will be held at Triple S this year, and because of Williams’ history of using his artwork to support miners, Sutherland thought it would be the perfect opportunity to reach out to Williams to see if he would donate a painting for the event’s auction. Williams agreed to help and felt honored to do so. 

“That’s just a special human being,” Sutherland said. “Another kind of person from West Virginia.”

However, what Sutherland was not yet aware of was Williams had been diagnosed with a terminal illness just months after they had first met. 

In three months, Williams had gone from weighing 200 pounds to 127 pounds and was told he only had a few months left to live. He had hardly been able to paint. But Williams knew he was a fighter and knew he would outlive the time doctors said he had left.

Williams did just that, and has been on his way to recovery. The painting Williams created for the fish fry is one of only a handful of paintings he has been able to complete since first becoming ill.

“I am now back up to 160 pounds. I am painting everyday,” Williams said. “And that is because Clifford Sutherland got me back on a canvas by asking me to do something again for another good cause.”

Those interested in bidding on Williams’ work can do so during the live auction, or pre-bids can be placed prior to the event by contacting Chambers at 304-651-8444. A Harley-Davidson WVU Rifle Team-themed motorcycle designed by the Orange County Choppers company will also be up for bid at the event. 

Tickets are $120 per person and registration is available online at