Friday, April 07, 2006

A Man Named Easter | by Jay

Last week was the 75th anniversary of Rockne's plane crash and death, and a group of domers and fans congregated on the plains of Kansas to pay tribute to the greatest coach in the history of college football. Ivan Maisel did a nice piece on the day's events, and our friend Chuck, who had visited the crash site several times in the past, was also there last week for the memorial. Here's what he sent us.

Amid a cloudless and windy Spring morning in Kansas’ Flint Hills, an additional purpose to the gathering was captured aptly by Bernie Kish. The former Director of the College Football Hall of Fame reminded us that, although eight people -- including football’s greatest coach -- died in the 1931 crash of a TransWestern Continental Fokker, another man needed to be honored. This ninth man happened to be alive and among those in the pasture that day.

Easter Heathman is the only surviving witness to the event which was commemorated by nearly 200 people near Bazaar, Kansas on Friday. For the past 75 years Heathman has taken hundreds of alumni and interested passersby to the site. As a 13-year old boy, he was not a Notre Dame fan, nor did he know who Rockne was when he came upon the wreckage in the fields. However, since witnessing the event, Heathman has respectfully accepted the role of chief tour guide to this tiny shrine. No one from the University asked him to do so; no one appointed him keeper of these hallowed grounds. Heathman merely assumed the responsibility he felt “needed doing”.

Through the years Heathman has grown to understand the attachment Notre Dame has for its cherished football tradition and its chief figure. In turn, many ND fans have come to know a decent and kind man who tirelessly welcomes people by giving them a first-hand account of a major event which rocked the nation.

It is not hard to imagine that, had it not been for Easter, the monument might have been overgrown with high grass and forgotten. It has endured, however, and the number of people coming to visit has grown over the years. The site, situated on a rancher’s property, has come to represent both a standing memorial to a sad and historic event and a respectful connection between a local man and a national fanbase.

It was my personal honor to have been among the first of the pilgrims whom Heathman hosted when I made my first trip to Bazaar in 1990. He personally drove two of us across the pasture to the monument, gave a lengthy account of the event, and even tossed some passes back and forth to us. After answering every question we could imagine asking, Easter also saw us off us hours later. Upon returning for my fourth visit on Friday -- accompanied by my 15 year-old son -- Easter welcomed me back, remembering me by name and recalling all our previous meetings.

“Well, folks, it's sure good to see you all here,” Heathman offered in a softened tone to those gathered on Friday. say the very least, Easter.

Easter is 89 years young today. Happy Birthday, Easter.

We also received a couple of photos from the statue dedication that was held in Voss, Norway, Rockne's birthplace. Check them out here and here.

Finally, here's an older piece from ESPN Classic on the Rockne memorial that you'll enjoy.

Thanks again to Chuck for his report. More importantly, thanks Chuck for making the trip, and representing all of us at the memorial of the man who not only was an immense public figure and a giant in the world of college football, but also who probably had more of an impact in shaping Notre Dame than anyone since Father Sorin.