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Witness of Rockne crash remembered

Meg Mirshak | Wednesday, February 6, 2008

James “Easter” Heathman, who was 13 when he rushed to a pasture near his family’s home in Chase County, Kan., to find the plane crash that killed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, died Jan. 29. He was 90.

Heathman died at an Emporia, Kan., hospital of complications from pneumonia, his son, Tom Heathman, said.

On a cold, foggy March morning in 1931, Easter Heathman heard the sound of engines roaring, his son said. Seeing nothing outside, Easter Heathman thought it was a car racing along the highway.

Shortly after, the phone rang and a telephone operator from Bazaar, Kan., informed the Heathman household that a plane had crashed near their home, Tom Heathman said.

“Dad, his dad and a few of his brothers jumped in their Model-T and drove up there,” Tom Heathman said. “They saw the tail of the plane in the air and the engines driven into the ground.”

At the crash site, which is on a cattle pasture located three miles south of Bazaar, Heathman saw five bodies thrown from the plane and three more still inside. Just a week shy of his 14th birthday, Heathman was one of the first people to arrive at the scene.

A few days later, newspapers reported that Rockne was among the victims but even then, “it didn’t mean anything to [Easter],” Tom Heathman said.

Rockne, who was 43 at the time of his death, led Notre Dame to consecutive undefeated seasons in his last two years. In his 13 years at Notre Dame, Rockne’s team won six national championships.

President Herbert Hoover called Rockne’s death “a national loss.”

But to a young Easter Heathman in a small Kansas farming community, Notre Dame football was not a topic of everyday conversation, Tom Heathman said.

“Dad became more interested in Notre Dame from talking to people,” he said.

After he retired, Easter Heathman got permission to take people to the crash site, which is located on private property. He took people on free tours to the site for about 20 years, Tom Heathman said.

“He loved taking people up there and enjoyed the people he met who made an effort to come to Chase County from everywhere,” Easter Heathman’s daughter, Sue Ann Brown, said.

A monument was erected in 1934 on the site by the Chase County Chamber of Commerce to honor the eight victims of the accident.

“Dad took it upon himself to show people the monument because he didn’t want the guys who died in the crash to be forgotten,” Tom Heathman said.

The limestone rock and marble monument, which stands at about 10 feet tall, is engraved with the names of all eight victims. But even before the monument was there, Easter Heathman had taken it upon himself to honor those who were killed.

“Dad built eight wooden crosses because he wanted people to know that there were eight people, not just Knute Rockne,” Tom Heathman said.

He also repaired the wood-post and barbed-wire fence that surrounds the monument.

“He felt almost a moral obligation to do it out of deference to the people it honored who perished at the site,” Notre Dame Assistant Registrar David Kil said.

Kil, who first visited the Kansas site in 1973, met Easter Heathman when he stopped to ask for directions to the memorial. After learning Heathman was the young boy who arrived at the crash scene, Kil accepted his offer for a free tour.

“He was a silent hero in taking it upon himself to take people to the site no matter who they were,” Kil said.

The unofficial caretaker of the monument, Notre Dame recognized Easter Heathman’s work on March 31, 2006. During the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the crash, Easter Heathman was presented with a Notre Dame shadow box, an unusual award for a non-alumnus.

“He thought Notre Dame was special for the way alumni and fans treated him,” Kil said.

At a pep rally for the 2006 Notre Dame football game against Penn State, Easter Heathman, accompanied by multiple family members, was inducted as an honorary member of the Notre Dame Monogram Club, Kil said.

Brown said her father feared the plane crash story would be lost once he could not take people to the site anymore. But last November, fundraising efforts began in Chase County for the creation of a Knute Rockne Museum, Brown said.

“Dad wanted to see it opened,” she said.

She said the effort began after a member of the Rockne family offered to donate a 1932 restored Rockne Studebaker car if a place to display it could be furnished.

The Chase County Historical Society has since purchased a building that is currently being refurbished to house the car and other memorabilia, according to Brown.

And while a museum might effectively carry on the story of what happened on March 31, 1931, Tom Heathman said his father’s own version will also live on among those who knew him.

“Dad has touched a lot of people and I don’t think we will quit hearing about [his story],” Tom Heathman said.

Kil agreed, saying Easter Heathman and all the members of his family “are exceptional people in the way they treat others and respect the legacy of Knute Rockne. Just knowing him, to everyone who came to him and visited him, he treated everybody equally.”