Sunday, July 8, 2012

An appropriate burial

November 14 is one of those dates that sticks out to me every time I come across it. It’s not like my birthday, but it never fails to remind me of the Marshall University football team plane crash in 1970.
My dad had been athletic director at Marshall until January 1, 1970. He left under the taint of a scandal he was entirely innocent of, though he was involved. The way I heard the story, EO came down to Marshall from its big brother rival West Virginia University in 1967 at the age of 36, then the youngest major college athletic director ever. Not long after arriving, he became aware of an illegal recruiting fund, and tried to put the kibosh on it, much to the chagrin of the funders and coaches involved, no doubt.
But the recruiting continued. Eventually the football and basketball coaches were fired, Marshall was kicked out of the Mid-American conference, and sanctioned by the NCAA. EO left in the furor that followed, and never worked in college sports again.
So I can’t imagine what he felt when he heard that the plane carrying 75 Marshall players, coaches, fans and crew went down about a  mile from Tri-State Airport in the rain the evening of November 14, 1970. These were his recent colleagues, kids he knew on the team, coaches and supporters he’d known, and his two best friends Mike Prestera and Gene Morehouse. I remember EO saying he identified some of the bodies; my mother told me recently they went to 16 funerals.
For me that night was a defining one of my childhood. I was eight years old, and I was terrified: my friends’ parents were on that plane, I had played on the fields during team practices while my dad was at work there. I remember sitting under the phone table talking to my friend Steve, just repeating the news we had heard. Apparently I told my Sunday school teacher the next day that I was the luckiest boy in the world because my dad wasn’t on that plane.
EO was buried at the memorial for Marshall crash, as we tend to call it, at Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington, West Virginia. He’s next to Nate Ruffin, who was not on that plane because he was injured, and who died of cancer in 2001. He’s in the front row, something he would have loved. When the leaves are down in the fall, you can see the football stadium from the site.
The memorial at Spring Hill Cemetery in
Huntington, WV lists all the passengers and crew
on the plane that night. EO is buried just to
 the right of the memorial from this view.
I had no idea he wanted to be buried there. I’d never talked to him about it. He and Betty had made lots of plans for their funerals, but had not purchased a plot, but sure enough, there were several available there near the memorial itself. Players from opposing teams visit the memorial, and the week before EO died, the Marshall football team had run up the hill to visit it. When we were there looking at the plot, a woman drove up whose brother had been one of the six unidentified players. Folks will visit, and they’ll see EO’s name among the headstones.
I had never been to the memorial before that day, I don’t think. I was all around that area. The cemeteries in Huntington are owned by the park board, and we treated Spring Hill a little like a park. I remember jumping off a hillside into huge piles of leaves gathered from the cemetery’s 110 acres. And even though I remain friends with at least one person who lost his parents, I rarely think of that when I see or talk to him. When I talk about him, or when I write November 14, or when lots of other things remind me of the Marshall crash, the memories of that night return.
Two men my age who lost their parents came to EO’s visitation. Both of them live near the memorial, both walk their dogs in the cemetery. Both talked about EO keeping up with them, encouraging them, spreading the news of their successes. There are others who would say the same thing. Now they have their PR guy out there at the cemetery.
Now that EO is buried there, and Betty’s ashes will be buried there when she dies, I will of course visit much more often. It will become a marker of a time that was so much a part of my childhood that I didn’t think about it very often, and I think about it all the time.

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