It’s hard to believe I was ever 15 and a sophomore in high school. It was so long ago and most of my memories from that time are frayed because of the passage of time and the deterioration of my senses.
But something so big and terrible happened on Oct. 2, 1970, that it sticks, at least a lot of it. There are times when I wish it didn’t.
One of the two planes carrying the Wichita State football team to Logan, Utah, for a game against Utah State crashed in a box canyon in the Colorado mountainside. Thirty-one people were killed, including 13 Shocker players in their late teens and early 20s.
It’s so sad.
During my nearly 40 years at the Wichita Eagle, I’ve gotten to know several of those players through their families and friends. I’ve written stories and columns about the deceased and about the nine players who survived the crash.
Today is the 44th anniversary of the crash and there was a memorial service at Wichita State on Thursday morning, as there is every Oct. 2. It’s a nice, brief and quiet ceremony.
I didn’t go today, but I visited the memorial later in the day, during the lunch hour. It was cloudy and peaceful. There were no other visitors in the 20 minutes or so I spent there, but I’m sure that many were privately thinking about the crash and its ramifications. It’s a tragedy that bonds us as Wichitans, especially those of us old enough to remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the terrible, unbelievable news.
The plane crashed on a Friday, in the early afternoon, after re-fueling in Denver. I remember the confusion of the day, a day before there was Twitter or Facebook or any of the instant access to breaking news that exists today.
There was, however, television. And local news stations broke into programming with pieces of the news.
My most vivid memory of that afternoon is talking to my friends about the crash as we were walking home from Derby High School. I was a huge Wichita State football fan in those days; my father and I went to most of the games. And a Derby kid, Steve Moore, was on the team.
Turns out that Moore was one of the players killed in the crash. His sister, Becky, was a senior at Derby at the time.
When news of the crash first started to come out, there was confusion about there being two planes used to transport the team, coaches, administrators and boosters. I remember being surprised to learn that two planes were en route and concerned that both had crashed, even though that didn’t make much sense.
Then I became concerned about Gus Grebe, who was Wichita State’s play-by-play radio broadcaster in those days. Like so many Shocker fans, I loved Gus and wanted him to be safe. I was relieved to find out later that he was on the other plane, the one that arrived safely in Logan.
So many terrible stories came out of the crash, but so many uplifting ones, too.
The football team resumed its season in 1970, just three weeks after the crash, against Arkansas in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks won the game, 62-0. The Shockers won something bigger.
I’ve been proud to work at a newspaper that has so thoroughly and excellently chronicled this important part of Wichita’s history. Much of that work is highlighted today at Kansas.com and it should be required reading for everyone who lives here.
It was a tragedy that easily could have been averted had the pilot of the plane used common sense. He didn’t and 31 people died.
Just more than 16 years after the crash, Wichita State administrators decided to disband the football program. For nearly 30 years, now, there has been no football at WSU. And while the economics of that decision have always made sense, the emotions of it are conflicted.
Every Oct. 2 is a somber day for me, one in which I think about all the great people I’ve interviewed about the crash over the years. I’m writing about it again today, and I’m sure I’ll write about it next year, too. So many stories have been told; so many more haven’t and perhaps never will.
Today, remember and honor everyone who died in the Shocker plane crash:
Marvin Brown, 19, Solomon, sophomore tailback
Don Christian, 20, Duncan, Okla., junior defensive back
John Duren, 19, Oklahoma City, sophomore end
Ron Johnson, 21, Kansas City, Mo., senior safety
Randy Kiesau, 20, Clinton, Okla., junior defensive back
Mal Kimmel, 21, St. Genevieve, Mo., senior center
Carl Krueger, 19, Chicago, sophomore tackle
Steve Moore, 21, Derby, senior linebacker
Tom Owen, 20, Temple Terrace, Fla., junior running back
Gene Robinson, 21, Dayton, Ohio, junior end
Tom Shedden, 20, Oklahoma City, junior tackle
Richard Stines, 19, Kansas City, Kan., sophomore guard
John Taylor, 21, Sherman, Texas, senior cornerback
Jack Vetter, 21, McPherson, senior tackle
WSU staff and boosters
Bert Katzenmeyer, 52, Wichita, athletic director
Marian Katzenmeyer, 52, Wichita, wife of athletic director
Ben Wilson, 44, Wichita, football coach
Helen Wilson, 44, Wichita, wife of coach
Tom Reeves, 31, Wichita, team trainer
Marty Harrison, 19, Argonia, head manager
Carl Fahrbach, 50, Wichita, dean of admissions
Floyd Farmer, 35, Wichita, ticket manager
Ray Coleman, 45, Wichita, chairman of Shocker Club
Maxine Coleman, 43, Wichita, wife of chairman
John Grooms, 42, Wichita ,won membership drive
Etta Mae Grooms, 38, Wichita, won membership drive
Ray King, 48, Hesston, state representative
Yvonne King, 41, Hesston, wife of state representative
Dan Crocker, 27, Oklahoma City, pilot
Judy Lane, 28, Oklahoma City, flight attendant
Judy Dunn, 39, Oklahoma City, flight attendant
And be thankful for those who survived:
Ronald Skipper, co-pilot