Knute Rockne, still remembered after all these years

American flags flutter below the monument commissioned by Easter Heathman to honor Knute Rockne and the others killed in the crash of TWA Flight 599. Easter, one of the first to arrive at the site, was 13 at the time. For many years he served as caretaker and site tour guide. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

American flags flutter below the monument commissioned by Easter Heathman to honor Knute Rockne and the others killed in the crash of TWA Flight 599. Easter, one of the first to arrive at the site, was 13 at the time. For many years he served as caretaker and site tour guide. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

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.

A stone monument to eight victims of the crash of TWA Flight 599 March 31, 1931, stands on the crash site. The quinquennial memorial draws family, fans and friends to the Kansas cow pasture to remember and honor them. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

A stone monument to eight victims of the crash of TWA Flight 599 March 31, 1931, stands on the crash site. The quinquennial memorial draws family, fans and friends to the Kansas cow pasture to remember and honor them. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

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.
“Dear Lord,
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.

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  • samnigromd

    April
    21, 2009

    The Greatest
    Sports Show Ever

    c/o ESPN
    Television

    ESPN Plaza

    Bristol CT
    06010

    Dear
    Greatest:

    On vacation
    in Florida I chanced upon watching one of your 50 Greatest Moments
    series. This was the “50 Greatest Defeats” or something like
    that. I had to get back home before I could dictate this so I am
    going from memory. I missed probably about 1/3rd of your
    presentation so, perhaps, I am just puffing hot air if you did
    mention these to-be-described “defeats” which are “greater”
    than any other except the USA – Soviet Hockey game!)

    1. The one closest to the upset of the Russians is the
    defeat of the “unbeatable” Oklahoma football team in November of
    1957. That team was incredible. It was undefeated in four years, I
    believe. Sports Illustrated had featured them in a front page
    article “Why Oklahoma is Unbeatable” the week before – and
    this is probably the first of the Sports Illustrated jinxed covers
    series. Read the article – I have enclosed a copy for you. Then
    tell me that this defeat was not one of the greatest defeats in
    sports history! Notre Dame had lost 2 games before I think and there
    wasn’t anyone in the world expecting Oklahoma to lose that day –
    EXCEPT ME! I had known it for the entire year ever since Oklahoma
    played Notre Dame in South Bend the year before (1956) beating (the
    right word) Notre Dame 40 to 0—I was in the stands. I enclose my
    article “The Biggest Regret” which describes how Bud Wilkinson
    set up his defeat the following year. Read what happened and why I
    KNEW that there was going to be at least one game Terry Brennan and
    his Notre Dame team would win in 1957 – it was going to be the
    defeat of Oklahoma in Norman. My only concern was that someone might
    beat Oklahoma before Terry Brennan showed up again. The less than 60
    seconds of “in your face” intimidating unsportsmanlike rudeness
    of Bud Wilkinson in South Bend the year before had obviously been
    overlooked by everyone except my roommate and me as we were in the
    stands that day as Notre Dame students – and we were so shocked and
    yelling but no one paid any attention. Thus basically no one really
    saw it because it was over within seconds with the Notre Dame team
    being immediately taken off the field by Terry Brennan having a rage
    rant. Bud Wilkinson did not need to do it – and his streak would
    not have ended if he had not done it. But he had not yet defeated
    Notre Dame after I think some 6 tries – and he had to be insecure
    so he did the pregame ploy in 1956 but it created a payback in 1957.
    I learned in the Navy that paybacks are hard to go through. If you
    tally up the pros and cons of just who these 2 teams were from the
    historical perspective, Notre Dame’s defeat of the Sooners ranks
    close to USA/Soviet hockey. Unfortunately, I cannot think of that
    game in elation any longer and I am compelled to always reflect on
    the consequences of rash, impulsive, rude behavior as having even
    more negative consequences—such as hurting another who was to die
    tragically—talk about guilt (Read my article). While on the
    faculty of the medical school in Cleveland, Ohio at Case Western
    Reserve University in the late 1960s, I attended a Notre Dame Club of
    Cleveland dinner and happened to be at the same table with Father
    Edmond Joyce CSC of the University of Notre Dame and Creighton
    Miller, a great Notre Dame Hall-of-Famer. As customary, games were
    reviewed and talked about and someone mentioned the Notre
    Dame/Oklahoma game of 1957. I told my story. Both Father Joyce and
    Creighton were in the stands at Notre Dame the year before and
    admitted to never knowing or noticing anything or ever even hearing
    of the pregame provocations of Oklahoma before. Father Joyce
    mentioned then that he was a guest of the President of Oklahoma for
    the 1957 game in Norman and remembers well the “total silence”
    with only simple perfunctory conversation throughout the game. He
    commented that it seemed as if “no one knew what to say because
    they had not experienced a defeat for so long.” You tally up the
    two teams and it is next to USA-Soviet hockey game—read the SI
    story.

    The
    next “greatest defeat” which I think you overlooked but which
    deserves consideration is described in my attached article “The
    Greatest Game Ever Seen” from Breaker Boys: The NFL Greatest
    Team. The story is the defeat of the Notre Dame All Stars by
    the first legitimate NFL Championship Team – the Pottsville
    Maroons. I have a son who commutes from Pottsville to and from New
    York City where he does Video Communications for advertising, etc..
    He discovered the Pottsville Maroons and turned me onto them. The
    book describes the 1925 Notre Dame All Stars being defeated by the
    Pottsville Maroons. In those days, the college teams were a lot
    better than the NFL teams which were basically just unsophisticated
    mayhem. Notre Dame was the cream of the crop and these were All
    Stars from several Notre Dame teams which basically were undefeated
    except for suspicious defeats by University of Nebraska (there is a
    story or 2 there). No doubt this particular game gave life to the
    NFL as well as forced them to realize they had to upgrade and become
    sophisticated teams rather than brute strength style play. I
    remember the days when the College All Stars would play the NFL
    champion. In fact, I attended as a kid one of those games at
    Chicago Field in 1953. The Detroit Lions beat the College All Stars
    and I remember my dad and uncle “doc” (best friend of Knute
    Rockne) saying that the pro teams played together throughout the
    season were always going to win and College All Stars would never be
    able to compete well as the NFL became even better. I vaguely
    remember a player in that game, Les Bingaman (?) who was a lineman
    for Detroit weighing then over 300 lbs which was unheard of in those
    days. Nevertheless, this Notre Dame-Pottsville game was
    important–it was a defeat that was totally unexpected and, given
    limited communications technology in those days, it was the talk of
    the country. It had to be – and the defeat of the Notre Dame All
    Stars in that particular game gave life to the NFL, not only in
    terms of emotion, but in terms of demonstrating what needed to be
    done to maintain a viable NFL by imitating Notre Dame. And this
    game obviously “created” the idea of College All Stars-NFL
    Champion contests. How is that for the impact of a “greatest
    defeat?”

    I hope you
    will redo the “greatest defeats” remembering these two games.

    Sincerely,

    Samuel A.
    Nigro, M.D.

  • samnigromd

    Biggest Regret

    By Samuel A. Nigro

    It was fall 1957, and I
    was a freshman in St. Louis University Medical School. There were
    seven of us from Notre Dame who were freshmen. Most of us had sat
    through the Oklahoma University football team’s defeat of Notre
    Dame the year before. It was bad: 40 to nuthin. I was in the stands
    that day at Notre Dame in 1956, and I witnessed Oklahoma’s
    outrageous conduct during the pre-game warm-ups. Next to me was my
    roommate and it seems that he and I were the only ones in the stands
    who noticed, because the Notre Dame fans would have protested,
    probably charging the field maybe, had they seen what went on.

    The Notre Dame
    players were doing their pre-game routine on their half of the field
    from goal line to goal line. Shortly after Notre Dame started, the
    Oklahoma team came out and formed a huge circle on the entire half of
    the field for calisthenics from the 50 yard line to the goal line
    thereby encompassing many of the Notre Dame players disrupting their
    warm-ups. Some Notre Dame players had to push themselves through the
    circle of Sooners to join the rest of the Notre Dame team. It was a
    rude, challenging and intimidating maneuver unnoticed by almost
    everyone in the stands except me and my roommate at the time, Bob
    Porst. Shocked, we just looked at each other and agreed that what
    Oklahoma did was outrageous – “They are going to pay for that,”
    we both said. But not that day. It was all Oklahoma Sooners: 40-0.
    After the game, the Notre Dame coach, Terry Brennan, was described
    by my close Notre Dame friend, Frank Geremia, (a tackle for that
    Notre Dame team) as having lost composure, slamming his fist into his
    hand shrieking “get em, get em, get em” and doing little
    strategizing. The pregame warm-ups were disrupted, the coach was in
    a rage, and a composed Notre Dame team was not to be found on the
    field that day.

    So I am in medical school
    the next year, and all of us Notre Dame guys with other classmates go
    to one bar to watch the Saturday afternoon nationally televised Notre
    Dame vs. Oklahoma game in November, 1957. Oklahoma still had its
    great winning streak intact…something I was hoping for because if
    there was one game Terry Brennan was going to win after the insulting
    unsportsmanship of 1956 by Oklahoma, it was going to defeat the
    mighty Sooners, unbeaten in 47 games!

    Not all of us in the bar
    for the game were from Notre Dame. One classmate was named Bruce
    Farrell, from Cleveland. For some reason he targeted me to mock
    Notre Dame and root for Oklahoma. As the beer flowed and the game
    was tense, we finally came to blows, of sorts. I shrieked, “shut
    up” a lot, but he kept it up. Our noses met and I let lose with a
    wild swing catching his chin without doing any damage. Laughing and
    carrying on, the other students separated us and calmed us down.
    Bruce stopped and I stopped, both apologetic for both going too far.
    We shook hands and it was over. We got into the game and I enjoyed
    it most because Notre Dame won 7-0 and stopped the longest football
    winning streak in college football history – something I knew that
    they would do after Oklahoma’s provocative antics the year before.
    I had hoped that no one would knock off Oklahoma before Notre Dame
    had a chance to. It was a dream come true. One of the greatest
    college games ever played. It is interesting that it would likely
    not have happened if Oklahoma coach, Bud Wilkinson, had not done his
    pregame antics the year before.

    But the memories all
    turned to horror. After we graduated from medical school and after
    many good times even positive socializing with Bruce at other social
    events, the Viet Nam war started. And (why do I still choke up?)
    Bruce was the first physician to die there. Years later I went to
    the memorial, 1-E-30, and rubbed his name, and wept like a baby. He
    had volunteered to accompany a mission, and his helicopter was shot
    down and it was reported that his last words, even though badly
    burned and propped up, were “I’m a physician – if I can be of any
    help, let me know.” A couple of the guys survived, but most were
    killed and then mutilated by the enemy, Bruce included.

    If there was anything I
    could ever do to take that punch back….We should not hurt each
    other. Ever. It makes no sense. It is supposed to pass. The Navy
    taught me: Grief is brief; complete your mission. Right. I am so
    sorry, Bruce, I am so sorry.

Saturday
December 10, 2016
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph