Thursday, April 21, 2011

Two Coaches Remembered

by Greg Larson

Knute Rockne crash memorial
Flint Hills, Chase County, Kansas

     The sunrise on April 2, 2011, blossomed and warmed the bluestem prairie grass in the Flint Hills in Chase County, Kansas.  It was a contrast to the cold wind and gray clouds that had swept the region for most of March, conditions that were similar to the day of March 31, 1931, when a plane crash near Bazaar, Kansas, killed Notre Dame football coach, Knute Kenneth Rockne, and seven other men.

     My brother, Dan, and I drove south out of Cottonwood Falls on the April spring morning to attend the 80th anniversary service in memory of the crash.  We participated in a rare traffic jam in front of the Bazaar, Kansas school house as busses and cars converged at the starting point for the tribute.  School busses shuttled the 250 attendees (including many Notre Dame Football fans) several miles south to the ceremonies held at the remote site of the crash.  The memorial is located on private ranch property, and is accessible to the general public only by appointment.

     At mid-morning, the haunting sound from a bagpipe silenced the crowd as a kilted musician walked closer to the memorial stone.  Then, Nils Rockne, the grandson of Knute (pronounced kah-noot by the family), held back tears as he said a prayer and shared some anecdotes.  After a memorial wreath was laid, a single-engine plane slowly circled the site in remembrance of the dead.
Memorial flyover

     The ceremonies included a tribute to Easter Heathman, the official caretaker of the memorial site, who died in 2008.  The memorial service ended with the crowd singing the Notre Dame Victory March and the school song, “Notre Dame, Our Mother.”

     The solemnity of the occasion left a lasting impression on my brother and me.  It was our first visit to the remote site.  The prairie stretched to the horizon, and time seemed irrelevant.  Blue sky and soft wind gave clarity to the ceremony.  The setting brought back memories of our grandfather, John Elliott Beck, and his link to the crash and to Knute Rockne.  At the time of the crash, Beck was the football coach at Chase County High School, located in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, just a few miles north of the crash site.

80th anniversary memorial service, April 2, 2011

Two Coaches Remembered
by Greg Larson

     As he boarded the commercial air flight in Kansas City on the Tuesday morning of March 31, 1931, Knute Rockne was in the prime of his life.  He was the Notre Dame football coach, with a winning percentage of 89.8 (105 wins, 12 losses, 5 ties), and was an exceptional motivator for the athletes, alumni, and fans.  His vision for a new stadium, seating 54,000 people, in South Bend, Indiana, had become a reality and the 1930 football team members were undefeated national champions.

Knute Kenneth Rockne
       Wherever he spoke, people listened.  A sportswriter, Westbrooke Pegler, once said that when Rockne gave a speech, it was like “a battered oil can giving off champagne.”

     Rockne was traveling to Los Angeles to sign a promotional agreement with Studebaker, and to meet Hollywood producers to discuss a film titled “The Spirit of Notre Dame.”

     The Transcontinental & Western Airlines, Fokker F-10A tri-motor passenger plane, lifted into the sky at approximately 9:15 am.  The plane encountered ice, snow, and strong winds as it flew into the silvery gray ether over the Flint Hills southwest of Emporia, Kansas.  It was too much for the seventy-nine foot wingspan made of wood and fabric.  Unbeknownst to the airline pilots and the passengers, the wood and glue of the internal framework of the wing had deteriorated from rain and condensation over a long period of time prior to the flight.  The buffeting winds and extreme weather conditions on that fateful day caused a portion of the left wing to rip from the plane and fall to the ground.  At approximately 10:35 am, the F-10A spiraled downward into the Flint Hills prairie, causing death on impact to the crew and passengers.

     Two brothers tending their cattle near Highway 13 (now K-177) heard the plane sputter and come into view as it spiraled out of the clouds and into the ground.  They raced on their horses, discovered the plane debris and bodies, and then sped home to have their dad notify the authorities.  A light blanket of snow coated the grassy, muddy fields.  The ambulance from Cottonwood Falls negotiated the mud and arrived at the site around 11:00 am.  A part-time deputy eventually arrived, along with local ranchers and townspeople.  Chains were used on some of the cars to gain access to the crash. Quite probably, many sightseers walked the mile and a half from the gravel highway.

John Elliot Beck
      My grandfather, John Beck, was teaching at the Chase County High School in Cottonwood Falls at the time of the crash.  Word spread that a plane carrying Rockne had crashed south of town.  As soon as possible, Beck left the school and hurried to the site.  Upon his arrival, he saw a horrific pile of wood, glass, metal and body parts.  The finality of Rockne’s passing sunk in as he looked at the wreckage.  Knute, the one Beck had emulated for so many years, was gone forever.  His hero had met his fate in Cottonwood Falls’ proverbial backyard.  Even though Beck had seen the horrors of war as a U.S. Army ambulance driver in France during World War I, the sight of mangled and dismembered bodies at the scene turned his stomach.  At that moment, he made a personal resolution and vowed he would never fly in a plane.

     At the time of the crash, Rockne was considered the greatest college football coach of all time, a belief that is still held by many football fans today.  News of the crash tore at the fabric of the nation’s heart.  The entire country mourned the loss of Rockne.  I believe that my grandfather, who had revered and studied Rockne for many years, must have felt a deep loss.

     Knute Rockne (height: 5’ – 8”, weight: 160 pounds) was considered a great innovator of the game during the years when football grew out of its infancy.  He promoted the forward pass and open field, slash-type running in his attempt to move away from the scrum-like rugby style of play that was the norm at the turn of the century.  This newer style of play was successfully executed by Beck’s coach, Bill Hargiss, when Beck and his teammates played varsity football at Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia (now Emporia State University) from 1920 through the 1923 football season.

     Beck, named all-conference halfback in his senior year, was similar to Rockne in size.  He was a natural athlete, and was comfortable playing many offensive positions.  Coach Hargiss used him in several capacities, from quarterback to running back, and from returning kick-offs to drop-kicking field goals and extra points.  A favorite with the KSTC fans, he was dubbed “Johnnie Beck with the educated toe.”

Johnnie Beck with the educated toe
     After graduation from KSTC in 1924, he taught and coached at Horton, Kansas, for one year, and then began a seven-year stint as teacher and coach at Chase County High School, where he built several powerhouse football teams, and coached basketball and track.

     At most, Beck would have hero-worshipped Rockne, and followed his every move during the 1920’s.  This interest in Rockne was not unusual for football devotees of the era.  At the very least, Beck was a pragmatist, emulating Rockne’s style of football and coaching to improve team performance.

     Both Beck and Rockne played numerous offensive positions during college.  They were older players during their college years; Rockne worked in the Chicago post office after high school, and Beck served in World War I before enrolling in college.  Both became teachers and coaches after obtaining their degrees.  Rockne was born in 1888. Beck was born in 1895.

     The cause of the Rockne crash was not immediately known.  Due to his notoriety, the public demanded the federal government determine the cause, which they did, after a long investigation.  Congress understood the need for stricter rules for periodic maintenance and inspections of commercial aircraft, and created the Federal Aviation Administration.

     The Rockne crash was a symbolic beginning-of-the-end of Beck’s football career as player and coach.  The stock market crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression affected the Chase County High School enrollment. It dropped from 189 students in 1928 to 142 students in 1930.

     After the 1931 plane crash, Beck coached just one more year at Chase County High School.  Seeking a more stable teaching position, he moved his budding family to Emporia, Kansas, in the summer of 1932 and accepted a job as physical education instructor at Lowther Junior High School.

     John and Ethel’s third child, their only son, was born on June 22, 1932.  They named him Kenneth.  Although we have no evidence or family knowledge as to why they picked the name “Kenneth,” it is very plausible that John Beck wanted to pay tribute to Knute Kenneth Rockne, the famous coach who died in the prime of life on a gray day in a remote pasture in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

Rockne Prayer to Play Fair in the Game of Life
(recited by grandson Nils Rockne at the 80th Anniversary Rockne Memorial Tribute)

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.  

Knute Kenneth Rockne (1888-1931)

Flint Hills, Chase County, Kansas