October 3, 2010

WSU crash not a generational story

To Wichitans younger than 40, from a 43-year-old graduate of Wichita State University and sports editor of a newspaper that knows the importance of WSU athletics in this community:

Don't ever forget.

You weren't alive in 1970, when the WSU plane crash in Colorado killed 31 people, scarred nine survivors for life, and left 25 children without a father, mother or both.

Many of those children returned to Wichita this weekend to observe the 40th anniversary of the crash. They range in age from 39 to 58 now, and though most have led full lives and tried to move on from 1970, a few I talked with in past weeks said the memorial weekend was one of the rare times they were able to remember with others who lived the same tragedy.

They haven't forgotten, and neither should you.

Don't know about the crash? Find our past stories on Google it. Ask your folks. They'll tell you of a city getting through an early-fall Friday only to suddenly hear gut-wrenching news from Colorado.

I hadn't been around long when the plane crashed. My only memories of that day were my mother crying the entire way home after picking me up from the babysitter's, then my sister (a WSU student) coming to the house, sobbing uncontrollably.

In my editor's role, I've read 20 years of articles about the crash and its aftermath. We've told stories about promising lives lost, survivors who wondered why they were alive, and how Wichita State succeeded and failed in helping survivors and families deal with grief.

But as the years go by, the story fades ever so slightly. Wichita media falls into the trap of covering the yearly Oct. 2 observance at Memorial '70, but if the anniversary doesn't end in a zero or five, we don't often go beyond that.

The 2009 KPTS documentary about the crash, though, seemed to renew interest in the story. Seeing survivors Randy Jackson, Rick Stephens and Dave Lewis reach the clearing on Mount Trelease and see the wreckage for the first time since they escaped it 39 years earlier was powerful. (The documentary will air again at 7 tonight on Channel 8.)

As a sports lifer, I've spent many hours thumbing through old media guides, looking for "didn't-know-that" nuggets. The most interesting to me is the 1971 Shocker football guide.

Coach Bob Seaman, who took over after Ben Wilson died in the crash, stands next to Jackson on the cover. Jackson missed the rest of the '70 season but was recovered by the spring.

Inside the guide, there's not one full sentence about the crash that killed 14 players, the coach and 16 others. There are references to "the crash" and "the accident," but no detail on one of the largest tragedies involving an American sports team.

That's always struck me as odd, but maybe that's the way things were done 40 years ago. Forget the worst, hope for the best.

But Shockers, especially young Shockers, shouldn't forget. Don't let the lack of a football program make you think that the crash was a blip in the university's history. Don't pass the memorial on Alumni Drive without remembering the scar inflicted on a generation of Wichitans and, briefly, a nation.

The crash is part of who we are. And who you are.

Related content