By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
BAZAAR, Kansas —It’s been 85 years. Those who were shocked and grieved are long dead; most of those keeping alive the memory of Knute Rockne and seven other men killed in the crash of TWA Flight 599 on March 31, 1931 weren’t even born. But memory is definitely alive and well.
April 2 dawned windy and chilly, but the sun shone in the skies above the Flint Hills. By mid-morning, cars were pulling into the parking area outside the Bazaar Schoolhouse, bearing license plates from Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Illinois and even farther afield. School buses were loading passengers for the short ride to the cow pasture where the Fokker F10A aircraft crashed. It was the 85th anniversary memorial celebration, an event held every five years for the legendary football coach who urged his team to “win one for the Gipper.”
When the plane crashed on its way to Los Angeles, with a planned stop at Wichita to deliver and pick up mail, Knute Rockne, famed head football coach of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., died, as did Waldo B. Miller; H.J. Christen; John Happer; Spencer Goldthwaite; G.A. Robrecht; pilot Robert Fry and co-pilot Herman J. Mathias.
One of the first to arrive at the site was 13-year old Easter Heathman, who had been shelling corn with his parents and brothers in their kitchen. Easter went out to the barn on an errand and heard a raspy, coughing roar, which he thought were cars racing on the highway about a mile away. They learned through a phone call that a plane had crashed nearby at 10:37 a.m. The Heathmans jumped in their Model T and raced to the scene.
It was grisly. Five bodies lay in a line about 25 – 30 feet from the tail, near a long pile of broken wood, torn fabric and pieces of the aircraft, all reeking of gasoline and hot oil. The bodies of the pilot, co-pilot and one passenger (John Happer) were still in the nose cone. Mail and furnishings were scattered.
All aboard apparently were resigned to their fate; Rockne was clutching a rosary when his body was recovered. Born Lutheran, he had converted to Catholicism in 1925.
The Heathmans stayed at the site until the coroner’s arrival an hour or so later. Not knowing who the victims were, Easter and his family helped carry them on stretchers to the ambulances that would transport them to Kansas City. They also picked up the scattered mail. Although for many years he said little about the crash, later Easter would organize the first memorial to Rockne and the others at the crash site. For more than 20 years, he gave tours and served as site caretaker.
Several days after the crash, Knute Rockne was taken by train to Chicago, his body accompanied by Kansas City physician and friend, Dr. D. M. Nigro, who that year began the high school football award program that later became the Simone Award.
The crash site was an attraction for weeks. Souvenir hunters showed little respect for the deceased or for Rockne’s sons, 14-year old Billy and 12-year-old Knute Jr., who had returned that same day to Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City after an Easter vacation in Miami with their mother, Bonnie Rockne. Rockne had hoped to see them before his flight, but their train was delayed and they missed seeing each other.
Rockne led the Fighting Irish team to consecutive undefeated records in 1929 and 1930. His death, called by President Herbert Hoover “a national loss,” made front-page news across America. Will Rogers paid him tribute, “Knute, you died a national hero. South Bend may have been your address, but every gridiron in America was your home.”
Rockne’s funeral Mass was held at Sacred Heart Church located on the university’s campus. His body lay in state at his home, and the procession to the church was witnessed by about 300,000 mourners. Upon arrival at Highland Cemetery, six members of his 1930 football team — Marty Brill, Tom Yarr, Frank Carideo, Marchy Schwartz, Tom Conley and Larry Mullins — carried him to his final resting place.
In 2006, the university honored Easter Heathman for his dedication to both the university and to the memory of Knute Rockne. He received an honorary monogram at a pep rally held at Notre Dame Stadium attended by students and fans, the event coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Rockne’s death. Easter often showed off autographed footballs given to him by coaches Lou Holtz and Charlie Weis. Easter died in 2008 at the age of 90. His family continues the quinquennial memorial.
Eighty five years later, friends, family and fans, many sporting Notre Dame sweatshirts or ball caps, boarded the school buses to go to the site, which is on private property. In the early spring the grassless ground is hilly, rocky and cut through by narrow, shallow gullies filled with water. The ground waits patiently for the Bluestem grass to germinate, and obviously, cattle wander across it.
A monument to Rockne and the seven others killed sits where the nose cone of the plane was driven into the earth. Small American flags stood at attention at its stone base, which is protected from cattle by a barbed wire fence. A bagpiper in kilt and plaid played near the monument.
When all attendees had arrived at the site, Nils Rockne, Knute’s grandson, led the Rockne prayer,
Play Fair in the Game of Life.
In the battle that goes on through life I ask for a field that is fair,
A chance that is equal with all in strife, the courage to do and to dare;
And if I should win, let it be by the code, my faith and my honor held high;
And if I should lose, let me stand by the road and cheer as the winner rides by.”
The program included Bernie Kish, former director of the College Football Hall of Fame, who spoke about the crash, Rockne’s legacy and Easter Heathman. A letter from Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s Athletic Director, was read. A short history of the Flint Hills was given by Pat Smith, Notre Dame ‘67. Members of the Happer, Rockne, Fry, Heathman and Nigro families laid a memorial wreath sent by the university’s athletic department.
A flyover by a restored Fokker F10A painted like an American flag and a moment of silence for the crash victims followed the wreath laying. The program ended with all (who knew the words) singing “Notre Dame Our Mother,” played for the first time at Rockne’s funeral Mass, and then Notre Dame’s Victory March, “Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame.”
Lunch at the Schoolhouse included a presentation by Jerry McKenna, Rockne historian and sculptor of more than 17 statues of Knute Rockne, and a new Rockne exhibit at the Chase County, Kan., Historical Society; remarks by Ray Horsh, pilot Robert Fry’s nephew; Pat Happer, John Happer’s grandson, and Easter’s family, Tom, Joe, Shelby and Trenton Heathman and his daughter Sue Ann Brown.
Interestingly, H.J. Christen (Chicago) a dime store fixture designer was on his way to California for reconciliation with his estranged wife. John H. Happer (Chicago) comptroller for Great Western Sporting Goods, now Wilson Sporting Goods, was on his way to open a Los Angeles branch. C.A. Robrecht, a produce businessman from West Virginia, was on his first airplane trip. Waldo B. Miller, an Aetna Insurance manager, was returning to L.A. after an east coast sales meeting. Spencer Goldthwaite was a young New Yorker traveling to Pasadena to visit his parents. Knute Rockne was headed to Hollywood to sign a film contract, be inducted into the LA Breakfast Club, speak to a convention of Studebaker executives about the car to be named the Rockne, and help friend J.H. Happer open his new Los Angeles store.
The crash changed airline transportation history. The investigation revealed a flaw in the wing spars caused by a weakening of the wood laminate by moisture. All U.S. airlines were then forced to ground their Fokker FA10s — it was discovered that many had the same flaw. Wooden wings were prohibited on commercial flights, wings were required to be made of metal and bolted to the fuselage, reducing wind and moisture related flutter and saving lives.
Additionally, the profound public interest forced the Aeronautics Branch of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce (today’s Federal Aviation Authority) to publicize the results of aircraft accident investigations.
The next Knute Rockne Memorial in Bazaar will be the 90th held in 2021.