Congratulations to long time Old King Coal Festival President and former coal miner, Steve Sawalich who has been named 2023 Old King Coal and will reign over this year’s Old King Coal Festival May 11th thru the 14th in downtown West Frankfort. He will join the ranks of deserving coal miners who have been awarded the distinction of being named Old King Coal, a tradition that began with the first festival in 1941.
In a letter of nomination submitted by his family, it was noted mining has been a way of life for the Sawalich family dating back to 1905 when his family came to the United States seeking a new way of life and freedom from Germany. That heritage progressed through the family from grandfathers and uncles to Steve’s father, Mick Sawalich who worked in mine sales, then down to his son.
Sawalich worked at Old Ben 21 starting out as belt shoveler and working his way through the ranks as a shuttle car operator, roof bolter, electrician, and face boss until the mine shut down. Not wanting to leave the area after the mine closed, he went into the hearing aid business until his retirement in 2022.
He was a “Miners Miner” but mining did not stop there. Steve’s passion for the coal industry and the plight of the miner led him to breathe life back into many community events that were no longer happening. In 2001, when the West Frankfort Chamber of Commerce decided to no longer sponsor the Old King Coal Festival, Sawalich, and a small committee of volunteers, took up the mantel and revived the festival bringing it back in 2003 after a year of planning. Under Steve’s leadership, the festival has grown into one of the major festivals held in Southern Illinois bringing thousands to West Frankfort every year.
Steve’s service to the community not only encompasses his 20 years as President of the Old King Coal Festival, but includes his participation in the “Fantasy of Lights” Christmas parade and his work in helping to start the Care Association which developed Strand Park in downtown West Frankfort in the early 2000’s. His devotion and support helped Sharon Ossig to continue the dream of fellow festival member, Richard Voorhees after his passing, to create a Coal Miners Memorial Park in downtown West Frankfort to honor all coal miners.
On December 21, 2006 Sawalich began the Orient #2 Memorial service, which has been held every 5 years since to remember the 119 miners who lost their lives in the explosion on December 21, 1951. Steve’s effort to never forget the sacrifice of the miners of the Orient #2 explosion, came to fruition when a beautiful granite monument honoring the 119 miners was dedicated on July 4, 2020 at Coal Miner’s Memorial Park. All of this was done from behind the scenes. Never seeking praise or glory.
For the countless hours given to community by Sawalich, he was named the Daily American’s West Frankfort Citizen of the year in 2003 and West Frankfort Business of the Year in 2011. In 2015 Sawalich was named to the “Walk of Honor” in downtown West Frankfort where a beautiful inlaid marker in his honor was placed in the “Walk of Honor” sidewalk for outstanding civic contributions to the City of West Frankfort.
Steve is a family man, married to Camilla Sawalich with two sons and four grandchildren. His passion and heart always goes back to COAL: and the heritage it brings to future generations and how a community can once again be a leader in the coal industry that powers America and beyond.
After 20 years, Sawalich stepped down as Old King Coal President. After being selected 2023 Old King Coal, Sawalich said, “I feel like I’ve come full circle from a coal miner to President of the Old King Coal Festival and now being named Old King Coal. Coal has been good to me. I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie and shenanigans with my fellow coal miners along with all the good memories of working in the mines to being involved with the festival all these years. It’s an honor and a privilege to be named 2023 Old King Coal because I know the men that have come before me in this position”.