NIXA, Mo. —The first word the baby girl uttered was "da-da" — not unusual, except the baby girl didn't have a daddy.
He was dead — died before she was even born. Before he could cradle her in his arms, kiss her cheek, run his fingers through her wispy hair. Before her first day of school, first prom, first anything.
Valory Edwards had a father, but not a "da-da." She was born on Feb. 12, 1971 — 133 days after an airplane carrying Wichita State University football players, boosters and administrators crashed into a Colorado mountainside. Thirty-one people died in the crash, including Valory's father, Mal Kimmel, a senior center who was to get his first start against Utah State on Oct. 3, the day after the crash.
Mal and his new bride, Diane, hadn't even told their parents of the pregnancy yet. They had only been married a little more than two months, high school sweethearts from St. Genevieve, Mo., south of St. Louis.
Forty years later, Diane is married for the fourth time after struggling to find her emotional bearings. And Valory, whose knowledge of her father comes through her mother's memories, has a husband, four children and a beautiful house in the suburbs of Springfield, Mo., next to her mother's house.
Baby's first words
It was evening, just after dinner, that Valory spoke her first word. It's such a milestone for every child and parent. You never know what it's going to be.
But because she was a single parent, and because she barely would let Valory out of her sight for those first months, Diane Kimmel — now Diane Buatte — thought she had a good idea what to expect.
"'Mommy,''' she said. "You just kind of think that's what it's going to be.''
Not this time.
When Valory said "da-da,'' her mother was stunned.
"I was like, 'Where'd that come from?''' she said. "It was very shocking. It's always exciting to get that first word, but that was not at all expected.''
Perhaps the baby had a vision, Diane thought. Maybe Mal had spoken to her.
"Is that the weirdest thing?'' said Valory, who has relived the story of her first word countless times. "That's just the weirdest thing.''
The second day of October is always an emotional time for Diane. She's never completely let go of her feelings for Mal; they were a young couple in love when he died. She was barely 20.
Marrying him was all she had ever wanted to do, and she wore a beautiful wedding dress on their wedding day. Mal, a big kid, wore dark pants and a white tuxedo jacket. He stood tall and proud in their wedding pictures.
To this day, Diane gets choked up when she thinks about Oct. 2. About Mal on that airplane. About how he hated to fly in the first place, but also about how excited he was to be on the cusp of his first starting assignment. She and Valory have always prayed Mal was asleep when the plane hit the mountain.
Valory has mixed feelings about Oct. 2. Her anniversary is two days later. She and her husband, Chris, have four vivacious kids: Abby, 11; Emily, 8; Isabel, 6; and Jackson, 4.
"I know my father was very family-oriented,'' Valory said. "I know he loved football, obviously. I know he liked to hunt and fish; he was a small-town boy. I know he was outgoing and that my mom loved him to death.
"I've read plenty of letters from him when he went away to college, and she was still at home. It's mushy stuff. I'm glad to get to see that.''
Mal was a year older than Diane; she stayed behind in St. Genevieve for a year before joining him at WSU. They talked every day while they were apart, making plans they thought would last a lifetime.
When Diane became a student at WSU, Mal was thrilled to have her nearby. They were inseparable, a couple of kids from a small Missouri town who were just getting started.
They were young to be married, but neither hesitated. They were as ready as they were ever going to be.
'A sad, scary time'
If Mal hadn't been chosen to start in the Utah State game, he would have been on the second chartered plane, the one that arrived safely. He might be alive today. The mind games are endless.
He and Diane talked the morning the plane left. Aware of his fear, she probably assured him everything would be OK and reminded him to take something to help him relax.
She had classes that Friday. A devoted student, Diane always went to class and always performed well. She earned an undergraduate degree and a master's in speech pathology, and a doctorate in early-childhood education. She's currently a professor at Missouri State University.
As she walked into her afternoon class that day at WSU, her classmates asked whether she had heard the news.
"What news?'' she replied. She thought perhaps class had been canceled.
Instead, they wondered why she was there. Hadn't she heard about the plane crash?
She, like so many others, spent the next hours waiting for news. It was slow to come. Survivors of the crash were identified. But Mal's name wasn't called.
It became obvious he had been killed and just as obvious that Diane, a new bride with a child on the way, was in over her head, devastated by losing Mal and intimidated by the prospect of a baby.
"It was really a sad, scary time,'' she said. "Nobody is prepared to handle something like that. There was a lot of grief and a lot of sadness, but what I remember most from that time is total fear. Panic mode because I was all alone.''
She came close to dropping out of WSU and returning home to be close to her parents. But friends and professors pleaded with her to stay, convincing her she had come too far to give up on her education. Her part-time job as a clerical worker in WSU's psychology department turned out to be a blessing: She relied on those professors to give her a sense of balance.
"When I needed somebody to talk to, I just looked at them as friends,'' Diane said. "It was even harder because I knew a lot of the other people who were on that plane. There were a lot of friendships that were severed that day.''
A new beginning
Valory's arrival signaled a new beginning for mother and daughter.
Still struggling with her loss, Diane found a new purpose and a new focus. A baby took her mind off her struggles.
"I'm sure I was pretty spoiled,'' Valory said. "And I'm sure I was able to help my mom because I represented a part of him, she still had a part of him. My grandparents still had a part of him.
"I have tons of pictures of me with them, and they always have smiles on their faces.''
Besides being a brand-new bouncing bundle of baby-ness, Valory was therapeutic. Her mother couldn't look at her without smiling through her tears.
"Now that I'm a parent, I think about it a lot,'' Valory said. "It would be so permanent to lose your child, or your husband, but if you had your own child or grandchildren it would be better.
"I think about how my mom was able to do that, being pregnant at that time. I know what an emotional wreck you are when you're pregnant because I've been pregnant four times.''
Valory, who went to WSU, too, in honor of her parents and to study nursing, lives a few hundred feet from her mother, who has been married to Paul Buatte for 14 years. They are doting grandparents.
Diane's second marriage was to Rick Stephens, a former Shocker football player who was badly injured in the plane crash but survived. They married for obvious reasons, but it wasn't destined to work. There was too much emotional baggage, Diane said.
Valory thinks of Robert Kinlock, her mother's third husband, as her stepfather. He adopted her, and they still have a relationship.
Paul Buatte, interestingly, went to school with Mal and Diane in St. Genevieve.
"He was one of Mal's classmates,'' Diane said. "So we have that in common; Paul was a friend to both of us. I think that still helps in some ways.
"It's all still very raw, even 40 years later. You'd think it would be old news by now, but especially in the fall of the year it just kind of all comes back.''
She wondered how she could get through an interview concerning Mal and the plane crash, but had to compose herself only a couple of times. She shared scrapbooks and wedding pictures; obviously the love never died.
But it's different. She remembers Mal as a kid, really. A big kid, but still just a kid. They were both kids, unsure of what the world offered.
Diane said she often wonders how it would have turned out. Would they still be married today? How many more children would they have had? Would Mal still be a ruggedly handsome man? Would she have stayed in school? And, most important, would she have become the strong woman she is?
"We hadn't even gotten to the point where we could dream together,'' Diane said. "I always knew what I wanted to do — I wanted to be a teacher, an educator.
"But what would Mal have done with himself? He was studying sociology, which doesn't really lend itself to a career.
"I know we probably would have gone back to St. Genevieve because that was high on his list. His family had businesses there, so maybe that's the direction he would have gone.''
Losing Mal made Diane grow up in a hurry. Having a baby accelerated the process even more. She couldn't afford to squander opportunities; she was forced to make the best of them. Happy to let Mal handle things before, Diane had to make all of the decisions.
She's thankful for that and proud of her accomplishments.
Diane's life has taken her places she never expected. She and Valory have settled into a strong mother-daughter relationship after the normal ups and downs. For instance, Diane didn't always like the guys Valory brought home and told her so.
That's in the past. Mother and daughter are in a perfect place.
And Da-da is never far away.