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Football: Pilgrims to honor Rockne

Ken Fowler | Friday, March 31, 2006

At 10:48 a.m. today, a small section of the Flint Hills of Kansas will return to the quiet state that consumes it on most days of the year – and to the serenity it held every day until that minute 75 years ago.

More than 100 pilgrims are expected to surround a stone monument just outside of Bazaar, Kan. today and pause for a moment of silence at that time, marking the anniversary of the death of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne in one of the first commercial plane crashes in American aviation history on March 31, 1931.

“[It] is a tremendously solemn but yet very powerful anniversary in our nation’s history, and I don’t think that is an overstatement,” 1984 Notre Dame alumnus Chuck Emma said via telephone from Kansas City, Mo. last night. “It’s a very important moment in many different ways.”

The political fallout from Rockne’s crash forced the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce – the predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration – to release the results of aerospace accident investigations, something that was not done until that point.

“People understand to be the death of the greatest football coach who ever lived, and that is true,” Emma said. “But additionally, there are many different socio-political elements that come from Rockne’s life and his death here.”

The memorial service will start at 10 a.m. CST and include a ritual football toss and prayers. Family and friends of the seven other victims on the flight will be in attendance.

Emma helped organize some of the pilgrims, assisting chief organizer Pat Reis, a 1985 graduate of Notre Dame. Reis has been making annual pilgrimages since he was in college.

“A bunch of my roommates – like college guys do – just decided they wanted to road trip and see where the big, concrete marker that’s seen in a lot of Notre Dame football films is,” Reis said. “So they said, ‘Let’s go find that thing.’ So they set off for the Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas when they met this Easter Heathman guy who gave them a tour. And we’ve been doing it ever since – and the last 20 years since we graduated.”

Reis said around 75 pilgrims made the journey in 1991 to celebrate the 60th anniversary, which has been the largest turnout since they began the pilgrimage.

Jim Sears, a fellow member of the class of 1985, said his trips to the crash site began in 1984 when he and his friend Al Gates, a 1984 Notre Dame graduate, decided on March 30 to drive to Kansas that night.

“I had a road atlas in my car, and I used to page through it instead of doing my homework, and I would study the landmarks,” Sears said. “There was a red dot in the map of Kansas that indicated a Knute Rockne Memorial.”

When he read a story in the South Bend Tribune about the anniversary of the crash and the memorial in Kansas, Sears decided to make the trip.

“I put the two things together and called up the one person I knew was doing less homework than I was – Al Gates – and I proposed it to him, and he didn’t hesitate – he said, ‘Let’s go,'” Sears said. “[The monument] salutes our alma mater Notre Dame and all the things Rockne did.

“This is another way to celebrate this … great man.”

Since then, a contingent of Notre Dame alumni and “subway alums” – fans of the University who did not attend the school – have made the pilgrimage annually.

Reis took over the majority of planning for this year’s event from 89-year-old Easter Heathman, an eye-witness to the crash.

“He’s basically done all the work to accommodate and host whoever shows up on the anniversary date of the plane crash,” Reis said. “[He’s] the caretaker of the site.”

At the time of the crash, Heathman was a 14-year-old out in the fields and one of the first to arrive at the scene. He has been guiding visitors to the site ever since.

But Heathman’s sister, Sue Ann Brown, and Reis organized most of the pilgrimage this year, with the help of some friends like Emma.

Reis said this year’s pilgrimage has attracted greater attention than any of the previous ones, thanks in large part to the notability of a 75th anniversary, combined with the accessibility of the Internet – something that was not available for widespread use before the 60th anniversary.

“There’s definitely a heightened interest this time,” Reis said. “It is a tragic day – you lose site of that sometimes. It is a celebration of Knute Rockne’s life and the seven other people who died that day. We try to celebrate their lives in the best way, but at the same time, it’s a very tragic event; it’s somber.”

The range of emotions and motivations for different pilgrims will be mixed, Reis said.

Minneapolis resident Joe Pupel and his wife brought their three sons – ages 10, 8 and 4 – from Minnesota to celebrate Rockne’s life.

“We’ve decided to share a little bit of American history with them so they can remember a little bit of their heritage and experience the importance of [Rockne’s death],” Pupel said.

There will also be a moment of silence and memorial service in Rockne’s native Voss, Norway.