Marshall University reflects on 50th anniversary of plane crash

In some curious way, they presided at the 50-year memorial service honoring the 75 victims of the worst plane crash in U.S. sports histo...



In some curious way, they presided at the 50-year memorial service honoring the 75 victims of the worst plane crash in U.S. sports history, the Marshall team plane that struck a rainy hillside near landing after a game at East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970. They helped hold vigil before the vigil while the sun tried to peek out through the fog. Adi Goldstein’s slow-noted beauty “Just A Little Hope” floated from the speakers over the chairs scattered during a pandemic, and two small children wore jackets reading “Coach Tolley,” the Marshall head coach who died at 30 in the crash well, well before their births.

They reigned up there through the speeches and the placing of the flowers beside the memorial fountain a chaplain called “a sacred site.” They held sway while university president Jerome A. Gilbert extolled the new banners and said, “I’ve had the privilege to walk among the images of the 75 the past several months,” saying he had made a point to visit each one. They were up there during the quote, “Athletics serves as a laboratory for human relations,” which came in the speech of keynote speaker Lucianne Kautz Call, who was 21 when her father, athletic director Charles E. Kautz, died in the crash.

They hung through the words of Athletic Director Mike Hamrick, that Marshall linebacker from 1976 to 1979, when he got choked up briefly after saying: “It is the greatest comeback story in the history of all sports. Our program came back from ashes to glory.” And the people they depicted might have felt amazed to hear a veritable pup, student body vice president Kyle Powers, say the fate of the 75 “still shapes the university and impacts every one of us.”

In some way, the banners ratified the unifying capacity of sports, given who juxtaposes whom on the lampposts. There’s the local car dealer and fan Parker Ward in a tuxedo bow tie, adjacent 22-year-old center Rick Dardinger, who had made the trip despite a leg injury. There’s Helen Ralsten, the schoolteacher who died with her husband, Murrill, next to Frank Abbott, the pilot who had served in World War II and the Korean War. There’s a Black player from Dallas, all-everything standout Bobby Hill, next to a White player from Columbus, defensive back Richard Lech.

They were all people — 36 players, five coaches, five crew members, eight athletic department staffers and 21 fans — and so people called them nicknames such as “Shorty”; “Jemo”; “The Menace” (for a Dennis); “The Governor”; “Gator”; “Griff”; “Bobby Joe”; “Nutsy”; “Happy”; the quarterback, “Shoe”; the athletic director, “Charlie”; and the play-by-play man, “The Voice of the Herd.”

Four were 23 years old. Three were 22. Twelve were 21. Thirteen were 20. Eight were 19. The oldest was 60. They hailed from 13 states, with four Alabamian African Americans all hailing from Tuscaloosa. Eight married couples were on board, leaving 27 children bereaved of both parents. A New Jerseyan identified on a banner with the honorary title “father,” Arthur L. Harris, died in the crash at 53, as did his son, sophomore running back Arthur “Art” Harris, at 20.

At least seven of the passengers had served in World War II, including community member Rachel Arnold (as an Army nurse), Charles Kautz (also Korea), special teams coach Deke Brackett and the two guys who gladly gave their time to videotape games for the coaches, Donald Booth and Norman Weichmann.

It went — and goes — on and on and on, a continuing onslaught of grievous fate that leaves the bereaved fortified only by the art of remembering, and at that art, Marshall rivals England with Liverpool’s 96 fans lost in a stadium tragedy in 1989. “I’ve learned the significance of celebrating someone’s life,” Hamrick said in his speech. “Yes, we grieve. Yes, we mourn. Yes, we’re hurt. This [annual] event taught me to celebrate someone’s life.”

So they did, and before they did, four men with hair aged to white walked up the sidewalk beneath the banners, wearing purple rather than Marshall green. They were former East Carolina running back Rusty Scales, defensive tackle Richard Peeler, offensive tackle Grover Truslow and defensive tackle Chuck Zadnik, and they had driven eight hours from Greenville, N.C., to pay respects 50 years after a postgame in which they had hugged Marshall players and shaken their hands. “I remember having to chase that quarterback all over the field,” Zadnik said of Ted Shoebridge, a crash victim. “It was a hard-fought game.”

Then: “I remember when I first heard about it” as East Carolina celebrated its 17-14 win. “Somebody walked in and yelled, ‘The Marshall plane crashed!’ “

They began to hold memorials on their own campus — that night, that Sunday. Fifty years later, their chancellor, Ron Mitchelson, sent an email to Gilbert that concluded, “Today, we are all Marshall.” The ex-players who represented Mitchelson’s school milled about with Marshall fans, posed for photos, then made their way indoors.

“It’s not our story,” Zadnik said. “We’re just a part of it.”

Then, with a noon kickoff coming shortly and a scattered audience dispersing — with distancing instructions — a banner found some meaningful company. It shows the face of the late wide receiver who starred on the fields and courts and tracks of Bluefield, W.Va., Dennis “The Menace” Blevins. He shares the lamppost with Jeff Nathan, a student sportswriter who wrote a column, for Marshall newspaper the Parthenon, regularly titled “Hoof Beats.” Blevins was 22. Nathan was 20.

Seven of Blevins’s family members had come as they do most years from Columbus, Ohio. The niece Blevins never got to meet, Stephanie Blevins, wore a shirt full of photos of her uncle. Blevins’s sister, Sharon Anthony, wore a Dennis Blevins mask and his jersey numeral 80 on her necklace as she said, “That trip was my brother’s first plane ride.” She said her “tall, gentle giant” of a sibling had called before departure from Huntington at the outset and said, “This is my first time getting on the bird!’ ”

They were a Black family from Bluefield, seven children, with Dennis the fifth and Sharon the seventh. “We were children of a coal miner,” she said. “My father worked on a coal mine. My mother was a cook [at a restaurant]. Dennis was the first one in the family to attend college. He had a full ride here.” She was 17 when the news came across the black-and-white TV that evening, and she said, “A couple of players rode back in an equipment van, and we didn’t know if he was in the equipment van, and we just had to wait. . . .

“And then, all of a sudden, the phone started ringing, and people started coming [to the house], and the cars.” A friend went to pick up their mother from working at a restaurant in nearby Princeton. “And then, cars. We lived on the hill. And the cars started lining up.”

Then she recollected a detail often lost. Several Black students at Marshall, including Lawson Brooks, Jane English, Macy Lugo and Dawn Evans, organized a bus. They traveled to Bluefield and to Tuscaloosa and to elsewhere, attending the funerals of all the Black players, hoping to make their families feel less alone. “They left Dennis’s funeral, and they went to the next one, and the next one,” she said.

“So emotional,” Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said five hours later. “So emotional, walking out on that field.” His team, ranked No. 16, had bunched in the end zone during pregame amid the playing of a video honoring the 75. It had walked dramatically and slowly, almost in lockstep, up the field to the 40-yard line before dispersing to the sideline. Then it had reached 7-0 by managing the moment for a 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee. “There were a lot of emotions to say the least,” quarterback Grant Wells said, “especially coming out like we did.”

Neither they nor some of their parents were born Nov. 14, 1970, yet they seem to uphold a quote their coach gave on video during the ceremony. “Everything we do is for the 75 who were lost 50 years ago today,” Holliday said. “Everything — I mean, everything — is for them.” That’s because it turns out humans can excel at remembering, and remembering more, and remembering still more, until in some very real way the departed never die.

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Newsrust: Marshall University reflects on 50th anniversary of plane crash
Marshall University reflects on 50th anniversary of plane crash
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