This will probably be the last time Rick Stephens attempts to bike across Kansas and Colorado to remember his friends who died in a plane crash on Oct. 2, 1970. He hopes his 550-mile journey will keep their memory alive.
The people closest to the tragedy — survivors, family members, friends — don’t want anyone to forget the 31 lives lost that afternoon on Mount Trelease near Denver. As the years pass, those who experienced it are growing older. They once tried to figure out how to live with the horror of the crash. Now their goal is to make sure it isn’t relegated to black-and-white photos and old newspaper clippings.
“This is an opportunity to put the events in the public’s mind,” Stephens said. “The main thing is that people take a few minutes to remember. The unfortunate loss of 31 fine individuals deserves to be remembered.”
Stephens, 66, played tackle on the 1970 Wichita State football team and he survived the crash of the “Gold” plane, the one carrying coach Ben Wilson and most of the starters. Fourteen players died, as did Wilson, athletic director Bert Katzenmeyer and 15 others. Eight players and one of the pilots survived.
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The trip will raise money for the Memorial ’70 Fund, a scholarship fund that benefits children and grandchildren of the victims. He raised more than $10,000 in 2011 with a similar ride.
“He’s pretty passionate,” said Sarah Selmon, his daughter. “He sees this as an opportunity to keep their memory fresh in people’s minds.”
On Saturday, Stephens will leave Cessna Stadium on his silver 27-speed Cannondale touring bike, one that he rode on two trips to Colorado and two to Canada. He will bike around 550 miles to the roadside memorial that marks the crash site on I-70 West, about eight miles west of the small town of Silver Plume and two miles east of the Eisenhower Tunnel. From there, he will drive a short distance to the trail head and the ascend a steep climb about a half-mile to the site. In 2011, he attempted the same trip and came up about 25 miles short, done in by fatigue and altitude.
He plans to make the trip in nine days, allowing two to prepare for the final climb and acclimate to the altitude, and arrive at Mount Trelease on Sept. 28 to meet family and friends for the hike.
“I’m sure going to try,” he said. “Three years have passed and I don’t think my joints have gotten any better in that time.”
Credit Union of America is funding the trip. Bicycle Pedaler prepared his bike.
He will bike through Hutchinson and stay the first night in Lyons, starting a journey in which he plans to pedal 90 miles a day. He heads west on Highway 96 through Great Bend, Rush Center, Ness City, Scott City, Leoti and across the Colorado border to Limon. The climb starts to get tough around Castle Rock, about 75 miles from his destination, and swings around Denver to the southwest.
“That’s when my challenge really begins,” he said.
Selmon will accompany him, over his objections, in a car to carry food and a rain jacket. She will drive ahead and plant signs warning motorists to watch for a cyclist. They will stay in hotels. Stephens, who used to sleep in a one-man tent in fields on trips, prefers to travel alone. His daughter prefers to help.
“He’s not real happy about it,” she said. “I think he just thinks it’s an inconvenience. I appreciate the opportunity to be out there with him.”
At the roadside memorial, Stephens, former associate principal of North High, will meet his family and friends for the hike. He will carry 12-inch gold flags with the names of his teammates that he will plant at the crash site. He includes survivor Randy Jackson, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.
“Hopefully, people who come up in subsequent times will make a little more association with those who were lost,” Stephens said.
▪ People can donate to the Memorial ‘70 fund through the Wichita State University Foundation (foundation.wichita.edu/give). For information, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 316-978-3040.
▪ Wichita State will hold its annual memorial for the plane crash at 9 a.m. Oct. 2 at the Memorial ‘70 landmark on campus.
Oct. 2, 1970
On Oct. 2, 1970, two planes departed from Wichita, carrying the Shockers football team to a game at Utah State. Most of Wichita State’s starters flew on the “Gold” plane. After refueling in Denver, the pilots changed the flight plan to give the passengers a scenic trip through the Rocky Mountains. The plane, overloaded with equipment, flew into a box canyon and could not pull up. It crashed around 1 p.m. on Mount Trelease, about 40 miles west of Denver.
The “Black” plane followed the original flight plan and landed in Logan.
Thomas Owen Jr.
Carl Fahrbach, dean of admissions
Floyd Farmer, ticket manager
Martin Harrison, equipment manager
Tom Reeves, trainer
Bert Katzenmeyer, athletic director, and Marion Katzenmeyer
Ben Wilson, coach, and Helen Wilson
Ray and Maxine Coleman
John and Etta Mae Grooms
Raymond and Yvonne King
Judy Lane, flight attendant
Judy Dunn, flight attendant
Dan Crocker, pilot