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.
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|
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|
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.
|Johnnie Beck with the educated toe|
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)
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|