Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My only regret about writing my memoir

There are times when I reflect on the writing of my first book -- November Ever After. And every time I go into that mode, I can honestly say that there is one regret.

Don't get me wrong. The whole process was an absolute blast. The research, the interviewing and the actual writing took me on an exhilarating journey that I will never forget. Along the way, I learned a lot about how memories can remain vivid, even when those memories span 40 years or more. With all the joy that I experienced in putting together my memoir about the 1970 Marshall football plane crash, there remains one missing element.

Winnie F. Greenlee

Wish Mom was still around in 2011

I just wish that my mother, Winnie F. Greenlee, was still around when November Ever After was published in 2011. My deepest desire was to present her with her own personal copy. In our conversations, I never told her about it and I had my reasons. 

Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. Mom passed away the year before the memoir was published. But she did find out about it, in a very round-about way.

When Mom moved into an assisted living facility, I was talking with one of the administrators (can't remember her name) and learned that she grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, which less than 50 miles from Huntington, where Marshall University is located. Because of that, she was very familiar with the tragedy from so many years ago.

Told West Virginia connection about my memoir-in-progress

As we talked, she asked me about my time at Marshall because Mom had told her that I went to school there. So, when the administrator asked if I was in school at the time of the crash, I told her about the book project I was working on.  The next day when I visited Mom, it didn't take long for the subject to come up. The conversation went something like this:

"I found out the other day, from some other people, that my son is writing a book. Why didn't you tell me?," Mom asked.

I froze momentarily, not knowing exactly what to say next. The question caught me completely off-guard. "Mommmm," I answered slowly, "I just wanted to wait until the book was finished, so I could surprise you."

Mom gave me one of those motherly looks that let me know that I was forgiven for being closed-mouthed about the topic. 
"Well OK," she replied. "I can't wait to read it."

A personal source of inspiration

Winnie F. Greenlee is the most determined person I have ever known. As someone who decided to return to college during her "golden years," she set an example that serves as continuous encouragement on a personal level. In the year 2000, Mom graduated from college with a degree in business management -- at the age of 80.

My plan was to surprise her with my memoir, which I dedicated to her. Although she knew about the book, she didn't know about the dedication part of it. Just wish I could have had that opportunity to share that moment with Mom.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Book review: 'Greenlee makes you understand'

Editor's Note: Here's a published review of "November Ever After" that appeared in the News & Record, the daily newspaper in Greensboro, NC.

When Craig T. Greenlee says, “We are Marshall,” he means it.

Greenlee played football at Marshall University in the late 1960s and was still a student at the school when a plane crash left 75 people dead and wiped out most of the varsity team on November 14, 1970.

The author during his playing days with the Thundering Herd.
In his memoir November Ever After, Greenlee, a former News & Record sports reporter and copy editor, tells the story of that time period and its effect on the community. His personal recollections, combined with a journalist’s penchant for detail and research, make November Ever After a compelling read.

Greenlee makes no effort to recount what might have happened on the airplane, instead sticking to the reaction on the ground. He conducted numerous interviews with surviving friends and family members, along with some who might have been on the plane had circumstances not intervened. That helped to create a picture of the atmosphere in Huntington, West Virginia during the era.

Overwhelming sense of loss

Many of the victims were Greenlee’s best friends at Marshall. In fact, he was so close to the situation that some members of his own family believed he was on the doomed plane, which had taken off from Kinston, NC after the Thundering Herd’s loss to East Carolina. But the defensive back had quit football at the end of the 1969 season, saying his heart wasn’t in it anymore. And that decision, he realized, saved his life.

Greenlee’s closest friend on the plane was Scottie Reese, an outside linebacker and defensive end. Three weeks before the crash, Greenlee was engaged and had just recently asked Reese to be his best man for the December wedding.

“Even though we (Greenlee and his fiancĂ©e) realized that the crash did happen, it was like we were both frozen in a state of being numbfounded,” Greenlee wrote. “No tears, no bawling and no wailing. No escape from the inner turmoil that seemed to be everlasting.”

A night that was memorable for all the wrong reasons

Some of the most powerful passages in the book involve the moments when Greenlee and his classmates in a campus dormitory heard about the crash, then learned there were no survivors. Some snuck around police barricades to get closer to the wreckage and see for themselves. Others made tearful phone calls to victims’ families. And some, like Greenlee, tried to escape public displays and deal with the shock on their own.

The shared sorrow did bring the campus together. Greenlee tells the story of a fight between black and white campus groups the day before the crash, revealing racial tension he believes could have resulted in a full-blown riot if not for the distraction.

Later, black students chartered a bus to attend four memorial services in four states in five days. The 1,500-mile trip was dubbed the Homegoing Caravan.

Hollywood influenced author's decision to write a memoir

Greenlee said he was inspired to tell his own story after seeing embellishments, omissions and untruths in the 2006 feature film We Are Marshall, and a documentary released around the same time.

November Ever After fills those gaps. In a conversational, first-person style, Greenlee makes you understand what the 1970 Marshall crash meant to those who were affected, then and now.

-Jay Reddick

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Q&A with those who were there in 1970

Editor's Note
An Emmy Award-winning documentary about the 1970 Marshall University football plane crash debuted to rave reviews in the year 2000. No doubt "Ashes to Glory" inspired viewers. But for many people like MU graduate Angela Dodson, it would be years after the documentary’s release before they could muster up the willingness to watch a film that  brought back so many painful memories.

Dodson, founder and CEO of Editorsoncall LLC, was a sophomore journalism major at the time of the tragedy. Dodson is the author of "Remember the Ladies: Celebrating Those Who Fought For Freedom at the Ballot Box" (published 2017 by Center Street).

Angela Dodson
 Q: What prompted you to finally sit down and to watch Ashes to Glory
A: I felt I needed to see it for background and context to write a story on you and November Ever After ((click here for article in DIVERSE Magazine). By the time I watched it, I had already read your book, so those wounds had already been opened up. The documentary couldn’t hurt much.  
Q: What were your thoughts after you finished watching it? 
A: I realized what a profound and shocking experience we had lived through. I always thought so, but time had dulled the senses and this helped bring it back. Your book reflects more of my own experience of the event.
Q: What else did you discover?
A: The documentary taught me more about other people’s particular experiences and circumstances and brought me up to date on some people I had wondered about, like the two cheerleaders whose parents were killed, leaving them to raise younger brothers and sisters. One of the cheerleaders was a journalism major with us, and I always wanted to know how the family coped. 
Q: Did the documentary deliver any surprises?

A: I enjoyed learning, for instance, about the family that owned Marco, the live baby buffalo mascot. (I was at the game the day he broke loose on the football field.) Partly because I was in the local media after college, I also saw news people I knew in the documentary commenting on the events, and I enjoyed that. 

Q: Final thoughts?

A: To paraphrase what my roommate, Murrial Jarrett, said after reading your book, I was 19 years old again and the events were fresh. It was glad to see some of the players “alive” again on the screen, and I could remember some of them as if the last time I had seen them was yesterday. Others were guys I had kind of forgotten or didn’t know as well, and the documentary freshened my memories of them.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A reader's response to memoir: 'A must read'

Rudy Anderson
The memoir November Ever After takes you inside the aftermath of what was one of the most tragic events in the world of sports. The vintage photos and images in the video teasers leave you focused and seared with the weight of that time.

What comes back to you is that the Marshall players are so full of life and expectations. For the school's coaches, players, parents, relatives, classmates, friends, and team supporters, 1970 began as a year of promise. 

It didn’t end that way.

This book is a great read and author Craig T. Greenlee takes you there. You don’t have to wonder about what is going on – you know. If Craig puts “pen to paper” about something, it’s worth writing about. It’s worth knowing about. Craig is an outstanding writer who is insightful, reflective and inspiring. 
Don’t sleep on this one. A must read.

A former television news anchor, Rudy Anderson is the Internal Communications Manager at Winston-Salem State University (NC).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book excerpt: Homegoing Caravan proved to be an emotional roller coaster for everybody

 Editor's Note: Five days after the plane crash, a group numbering between 50 and 60  people representing Black United Students of Marshall University rode a chartered bus on a five-day trip that covered more than 1,500 miles. These folks, who represented Black United Students of Marshall University, attended a wake and three funerals at Bluefield, West Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Greenwood, South Carolina. This trip enabled these students to say their final good-byes to seven of the ten black football players who died. Below is an excerpt from "November Ever After" about that trip (Chapter 5 Homegoing Caravan).

       Getting fifty-something seats filled for a chartered bus trip was not a problem. There was a strong sense of obligation to go on this sojourn. Folks had a burning desire to pay their final respects. Nobody ever said it, but all of us knew it was the appropriate thing to do. 
     Whites were not barred from the caravan. It just turned out that no white folks signed up to go. The school made sure that Marshall would be represented at every player’s funeral by assigning various faculty and staff members to attend designated services.

Unique affinity

       Several campus organizations held memorial services for all the crash victims. But among the blacks at Marshall, there was a unique affinity because of skin color and culture. Call it a sign of the times. It was a time in which blacks were the small minority on white college campuses, but were very vocal in helping to pave the way for blacks’ inclusion into every facet of student life.
       Marshall was no different. Back then, the black pride movement was at its peak. The soul hit “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown became an anthem for blackness back in the day.
       “Marshall was a very small community,” said Angela Dodson. “There were only a few us (black students). To lose ten at one time was a big dent. In the midst of all the confusion and shock, we needed to do something active or proactive to try to process all that had happened and be part of it.”

Wide range of emotions

     The most unique aspect of this trip was the kaleidoscope of emotions experienced by the passengers as they traveled from one funeral site to another. There were upbeat moments accompanied by laughter and horseplay—and always lots of spontaneous singing. 
     By the end of the journey, it’s safe to say that there were few onboard who didn’t know at least one stanza of the black church hymn “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”
       All during the trip, caravan passengers sang spirit-lifting songs that reinforced a message of hope that some way, somehow, everything was going to be all
right. Audience participation on the bus trip didn’t end with song. As a means of coping, the passengers—one by one—got out of their seats and shared their fondest memories of the players who died. These testimonial-style presentations helped everyone on the bus to learn more about the human side of these deceased athletes.

Mood changes all along the way

       Melancholy moments were to be expected. Every time the bus would get within forty to forty-five minutes of arriving at the next funeral stop, the mood would change dramatically. Bus riders went from being jovial to being in mourning. At those times, silence gripped the atmosphere. With the exception of some quiet chatter here and there, the only sound was the barely audible hum of the engine as the bus motored down the highway.
       This aura of quietness remained when passengers boarded the bus after attending a homegoing. The silence would last for as long as an hour or two. At times, the stillness was so obvious that you could hear a mosquito breathe.

A bus ride that none of the travelers will ever forget

       These extremes in shifting emotions played out time after time over the course of this trip. “At one point, you felt terribly sad,” said Bundy. “But
then you felt a closeness, a togetherness, a love for each other; and you felt
how everybody was holding up everybody else.”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Alum's perspective on memoir: 'my life is richer'

By Gary Sweeney

During Marshall University's Homecoming weekend in October of 2011, my wife (Anne) and I got to visit a very good friend – Maurice Cooley. We cultivated a lasting friendship during our days at MU. Today, Maurice serves our alma mater with his enthusiastic leadership in helping black students get an education as the director of the Student Relations Center at Marshall.

Maurice escorted me and Anne to the on-campus bookstore to meet author Craig Greenlee. Craig and I are graduates of Marshall's W. Page Pitt School of Journalism & Mass Communications. But because I’m a few years older, we never had any journalism classes together.
Craig had a book signing for November Ever After on Homecoming DayHis book is unlike others that have documented the heartache that HuntingtonWest Virginia faced during those dark times which started on the night of November 14, 1970.  

The tragedy was so devastating for everyone

It's about the tragedy that we – as young students – did not know how we should act or react. Most of us had never been forced to deal with the emotions associated with death. Not only that, but we had to come to grips with losing most of our football team and coaches, our classmates and friends. 

Some of us had friends whose parents were passengers on that ill-fated flight.
I’m happy I that purchased a copy of Craig's book.  Not long after Homecoming, we traveled to Texas to see our older daughter (Rebecca), her husband, and three of our wonderful grandchildren. During our visit, I finished the book during the wee hours of quiet nights and early mornings. 

I laughed.
I renewed friendships of long days past...
I cried often! 
In late the 1960s, the Herd got serious about football

Craig played football for the Herd during our days at Marshall University. He [along with the rest of the large freshman class] was recruited by Coach Perry Moss to become a part of something greater. MU’s undefeated freshman team of 1968 provided tangible proof that the school was serious in its efforts to become a formidable force in college football. 

Our days in Huntington (West Virginia) were not pleasant ones when it came to football.  Marshall was very close to having the longest losing streak in the nation. Craig was one of many black athletes who accepted Coach Moss's invitation to play football in West Virginia.

But because Craig had given up the game of football, he was not on board the plane in 1970. I believe God had a new purpose for Craig ... and it would take over forty years before Craig would pen a book about what it was like to be a student at MU and a former Thundering Herd teammate. 

Sincere thanks to my friend Maurice

God has blessed my life often and He continues to do so.  I don't know why Maurice chose to introduce me to Craig Greenlee during Homecoming of 2011. 
Thank you, Maurice. 
My life is richer because of November Ever After.

Gary Sweeney is a 1969 graduate of Marshall University.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

A unique and everlasting bond

Editor's Note: Today marks the 46th anniversary of the Marshall air tragedy. On the night of November 14, 1970, a Southern Airways DC-9 jet carrying the Thundering Herd football team, coaches, staff and supporters, crashed as it attempted to land at Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virginia. There were no survivors among the 75 passengers on board. Bill Dodson, a fellow Marshall graduate (Class of '73) graciously consented to share his thoughts about an event that happened so many years ago. Mr. Dodson builds a strong case that for those of us who were there at that time -- we are linked for life.
    I saw where a friend posted on Facebook that we (Marshall alumnus who experienced the tragedy of 1970) have a bond. I had said so previously. 
    Not only is that bond a means to connect. But it's also an unspoken commitment to forever honor those who had fallen on that fateful night. As Craig Greenlee conducted research for his book, November Ever After, this was the underlying premise. 
   In the years that followed the tragedy, many of us who were left behind had not spoken publicly about our experience. There was difficulty in finding words to express ourselves.
    Even so, each one of us made a pact within their hearts to honor their friend, associate or loved one. When we gathered it was a topic that we would dwell on. Nevertheless, there was never a doubt about the pain that lingered below the surface. 
   The documentary about the crash -- Ashes to Glory -- opened my eyes to this reality. Originally, I was numbed by the horror of the event. Later in life, those feelings were repressed as an unresolved experience like an open wound to the heart that never healed completely. 
    I used to call Nate Ruffin around "that time of the year" to check in. Nate played on the 1970 team, but missed the fatal flight because of a season-ending injury. Ruffin passed away in 2001.
    During our conversations, we talked about current things, touching base on family and friends. Still, "the elephant in the room" was the tragedy that was never directly addressed.
    For me, the documentary opened up a whole box of memories and emotions. In facing it head-on, it produced a measure of closure. Not that I could ever put it past me. Instead, I felt compelled to move forward and honor the fallen. 
    Reconnecting with the Marshall University Black Alumni was the start and there's been healing as a result. We worked to memorialize Nate's passing by raising funds which resulted in a prominent memorial at the Alumni Center on the Marshall campus. Black Alumni has established an ongoing support mechanism to help fund scholarships in Nate's name. 
    Gathering each year at MU was affirming -- and I was not alone. Others came back to check in. It was like a call went out and people paraded in one by one. 
    It's a bond we have, unlike any other college group. It's written upon our hearts and resides in a special place in our minds. Our departed classmates live on through each of us every day as we remember the sacrifices they made as a source of inspiration. 
    We are one as part of the Marshall University family. There's the real story we all could add to a chapter of any book about that time in our lives and those who were a real part of it. 
    The bond we have will never be broken! Go Herd!

-Bill Dodson