Hundreds expected at memorial for WSU crash

10/01/2010 12:00 AM

10/01/2010 12:48 AM

For people affected by the 1970 Wichita State football plane crash, Saturday is a day they need each other.

It is the 40th anniversary of that event, and the desire to bond and remember is strong.

WSU expects its largest gathering in years for the 9 a.m. memorial service on campus. More than 200 people associated with the team will attend, double the usual number.

"I really think it's necessary," said Keith Morrison, a defensive end who was one of eight players who survived the crash.

"The most important fact is that we are honoring those we lost that day. After 40 years, you're afraid people might forget."

Morrison's sentiment is typical of the one WSU alumni association executive director Debbie Kennedy said she has heard often in recent weeks. The calls and e-mails flowed in, with people telling her they needed to come. Family, friends and teammates from around the country will attend.

Several coaches are expected, including Bob Seaman, the offensive coordinator who became head coach after the death of Ben Wilson in the crash. Radio announcer Gus Grebe, who lives in California, plans on returning. John Putt, a member of rescue team who was 12 at the time of the crash, will make his first trip to Wichita to meet survivors and families of the victims.

WSU was scheduled to play at Utah State the day after the crash, and former Utah State coach Chuck Mills and quarterback Tony Adams will represent the school.

"It's been (a time) of such grace," Kennedy said. "They're saying, 'I want to come back.' "

Attendance at the five- and 10-year services often rises. There is more at work this year.

"Waltzing in Heaven," a play written by the father of victim Ronnie Johnson, and a 2009 KPTS documentary renewed interest in the story. Wichitan Randy Jackson, one of the survivors, died from pancreatic cancer in July. In August, more than 40 people visited the crash site, 40 miles west of Denver, on a trip organized by WSU. Response to that trip led WSU to consider another one next summer.

The friends and families of the victims know their time as a group is growing short. They don't want the events of Oct. 2, 1970, to be forgotten.

"We're now starting to see part of our team go away," said John Yeros, a freshman receiver in 1970. "I think that is pulling people together. I think it will be an emotional day. I don't know how many of us will be around for No. 50."

Morrison, who lives in San Antonio, last came to a service in 1995. He wants to see roommate Rick Stephens, who shared the longest stay after the crash at Wesley Hospital with Morrison.

Mary Krueger, sister of victim Carl Krueger, will join two sisters and come to the service for a second straight year.

Ladye Daniels, sister of victim Tom Owen, is bringing their mother, Mary, from Florida. It is Daniels' first trip to Wichita since the 1970 service.

"My mom is very much wanting to go," Daniels said. "This may be her last chance to go to a reunion."

Mary Krueger, who lives in suburban Chicago, didn't realize the university held annual services until last year. Prompted by the documentary, she attended.

In August, she hiked to the crash site on Mount Trelease. She savors talking with people who knew her older brother as a college student. Teammate Ed Plopa told her he carries a picture of Carl in his wallet. Dave Lewis, one of the survivors, stopped her mother at the service to tell her he knew how much Carl loved his mom.

"I didn't know my brother as well as his friends did," she said. "To hear the things they did and seeing the people who lived with him and hearing how fun he was... it's nice to hear that."

Many of the people at the memorial will wear a black T-shirt with the gold helmet worn in that era. "Still a team" is emblazoned across the front.

Chuck Ramsey, an assistant coach on the 1970 team, is a regular at the service. He said one thought will dominate the minds of those who return — what did those who didn't die on the Gold plane do with those 40 years?

"They owe it to themselves to come back and see their teammates and their friends," he said. "We had another 40 years their teammates and other people never had. We are all very fortunate to still be around."

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