Wednesday, November 14, 2018

48 Years Later: Hope from unthinkable tragedy

A week before the plane crash, Marshall defeated Kent State 20-17
in its final home game of the 1970 season. Thundering Herd
defenders (from left) Larry Sanders, Scottie Reese and Bobby Hill
gang-tackle Kent State running back Phil Witherspoon.
Author's Note: Today marks the 48th anniversary of the Marshall University plane crash that killed most of the school's football team over four decades ago. Normally, I write a blog entry every November about some aspect of this horrific event. This year, I'm taking a different route, thanks to a new-found colleague who has a deep passion for helping people heal from traumatic experiences. In today's blog entry, Jen Marr, a crisis response professional, reflects on the MU tragedy and what we can learn from it.

By Jen Marr

     November 14th, 1970. 
     Thirty-six members of the Marshall University football team, nine coaches, 25 prominent community leaders/spouses and five flight crew members died in a flash as their plane crashed into a hillside seconds before it was to touch ground in Huntington, West Virginia. Seventy-five passengers on board. Gone. 
     You may remember the movie “We are Marshall." It documented this tragedy and the story of rebuilding the football program. From the moment this movie was released in 2006, it captured my attention. Matthew McConaughey, football and a triumph from tragedy story? I’m in. But it was 10 years after the movie was released that I started watching it again. And again. And again. 
 
Jen Marr is today's
guest blogger.
   I really began to ponder the story line and wondered about the angle that was not so visible in the film. The real story. The story of those left behind: At least 100 parents, 13 widows and 70 children. Eighteen children lost both parents and 52 others lost one. 
Widespread impact
     There were countless people who were deeply impacted: team members who didn’t go on the trip, girlfriends of the players, grandparents, cheerleaders, friends, fellow students, neighbors, faculty, and the list goes on and on and on. 
    How did life go on? How have they made it through? The reason this movie caught my attention again a decade later was because I had experienced two large-scale tragedies myself. The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) and the Boston Marathon bombing (2013).
     In the case of Sandy Hook, I helped bring comfort in the recovery efforts taking place at the school each week. As for the Boston Marathon bombing ... I was there as a race participant, but never finished. At the time the bombs detonated, I was stopped after running 25.8 miles. I wandered around town shivering and lost for another three miles before finding my family and hotel.      
     In the ensuing years, I’ve watched as deeply-hurting people in these communities feel unnecessary pressure to “move on."  The passage of time should be adequate time to be “over it." Right? And I am witnessing how far away from reality this thinking is. 
     My eyes were opened. 
Researching the tragedy
     And so, I felt compelled to research the Marshall University tragedy to help us learn from 48 years of recovery from an unthinkable tragedy. Did they ever get past it? I’ll give you the quick answer. They aren’t over it. They will never “get over it”. 
     Every November 14th brings them all back to that moment. And the same pain comes again. Every Year. It is always with them. But there is also hope. Read on. 
     My quest led me to Craig T. Greenlee. who authored the book “November Ever After," a memoir about the plane crash and its aftermath. Craig waited 40 years to tell his story. He knew most of those who were on the plane that night. He was on the team the previous two seasons, left the team for personal reasons, and came back for spring practice in 1971 to help rebuild the football program. 
The Memorial Fountain on the
Marshall University campus
serves as a lasting tribute to the
75 people who died in the
plane crash more than
four decades ago.
Remembering those who lost their lives
     Craig has a southern drawl and deep commitment to preserve the memories of his beloved teammates and all those affected by this tragedy. Most of the reflections I discussed with him centered around the struggle of living in a world where no one could possibly understand what they were going through. 
     How could anyone possibly understand? 
     Those who were left behind wanted to be strong, but there was no road map. And so, they learned as they went. 
     Forty-eight years later, here are some wise takeaways from Craig:
  •     Be patient with those experiencing trauma and crisis. “When you are so deep in pain there simply are no words. Don’t expect people to open up and talk about it. Be patient. We consoled each other in silence. The pain was so profound."
  •      We need each other more than we want to admit. “You help yourself helping yourself. Don’t underestimate your emotion. Don’t think “I’ll get over it”. Seek help. Find people you trust and open up.
  •      Helping others helped us. “Joe Bundy was a freshman student who was assigned to assist the father of one of the players who died (Freddie Wilson). In the book, Bundy recalled “Rather than thinking about how bad I felt about losing a homeboy (Dennis Blevins), my focus changed. I began to think about what it must be like for the parent in the situation. It allowed me to be strong."
  •      Everyone will respond differently. “A loss of any kind is a matter of the heart. It’s something we all have to understand because we will all deal with it at some point in our lives. And how people respond to crisis, trauma and loss are as different as our fingerprints.” 
     You can have no expectation of how people are dealing with their trauma other than they have not forgotten it.
  •      Things will be said that would otherwise never be said. Hurtful things. Shocking things. Angry things. Clueless things. With so much pain around you, it’s unavoidable. Craig recalls vividly things said that were anything but helpful: 
              “It’s about time that you move on from that plane crash.” 
              “People die, and they’re buried, and you just move on.”
  •      Memories of the event don’t fade to black. When we think about the fact that we still have vivid memories from our childhood, how could we expect that those suffering from trauma don’t have flashbacks of what they experienced with exceptional clarity and detail? Craig recalls his memories as if he’s watching them on film. They are that clear to him.
     Craig closes his book with these observations:
     What we can say is that we endured. And during that process, we wept, and we agonized. And we continued to celebrate the lives of those who perished. The Marshall students from the early ‘70s are senior citizens now. We’ve established ourselves in our careers, raised our children and are having a ball as grandparents. 
      Along the way, we’ve lost loved ones, which includes parents, siblings, other relatives and in some cases lifelong buddies. Even with all of that, we cannot erase the memories from over 40 years ago, memories that are forever etched in our psyches. True enough, it was so long ago, but it’s still just like it happened yesterday.
     It’s always with you.” 
   
There is hope. 
     With so many large-scale tragedies happening around us and countless small-scale tragedies that have a similar impact on lives, we owe it to ourselves to learn from those who’ve been there before us. If we learn that people don’t “get over” traumatic events, then maybe we can think twice before assuming they are "back to normal." 
Learning how to comfort those in need
    And maybe then we can be open to reaching out and being there to care for them better. The examples are all around us every day. 
    That veteran having a hard time keeping a job? He’s not “over it”. The co-worker who recently had a miscarriage? She’s won’t just “have another baby” and get past it. The high school classmate who lost a son to a drug overdose? She will never “get back to normal”. The student whose friend committed suicide? It will always be with him. 
     The “We are Marshall” movie ended with a great football win the year following the tragedy. And then the credits rolled as we saw Matthew McConaughey flash his smile one last time. 
     But that’s not where the story ends in real life. The real-life story gives us hope. Even though traumatic events stay with us, we can learn that life will blend together the past, present and future so that the cherished memories stay cherished. When we remove “getting over it" ... “moving on” and “getting back to normal” from our thought process and replace our thinking with “it’s always with you”, we change everything. 


Hope for genuine healing
     “Getting over it” puts up a big dark wall, denying most reflection and conversation on the topic; “always with you” breaks that wall down and opens a beautiful door for preserving memories, accepting and providing comfort and building relationships based on the memories and pain. 
     “Moving on” discourages looking back, marching blindly forward; “always with you” takes the past and seamlessly weaves it into the present and future. Using each day, the bad days with the good days, to bring together the full story. 
     “Getting back to normal” is sometimes mistaken for finding a way to go on; “always with you” allows for true resiliency by identifying and accepting a “new normal” and living life as it is now. 
     Life is hard and messy. And in the crazy busy world we live in today, we sometimes find ourselves at a loss when it comes to knowing how to help those who are hurting. 
     We can do better. 
     We will do better. 
     We are all Marshall now. 

Jen Marr is the Founder and CEO of Inspiring Comfort LLC, a company that provides programs that teach people how to do a better job of comforting others.  Learn more by visiting this web site: http://www.inspiringcomfort.com 

Recommended further reading/viewing

Video -- Surviving teammate Dennis Foley opens up for the first time in 47 years on this video. Let that sink in for a minute… He didn’t share his story for 47 years. If you remember one thing about this video, remember the clarity in which he recalls his story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qSuwqmRynY 
Article -- Chicago Tribune Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Julie Keller, grew up in Huntington West Virginia and wrote an amazing piece “It’s Always With You” - http://www.marshall.edu/ucomm/files/2012/10/ItsAlwaysWithYou.pdf 
Video -- Nate Ruffin, the Thundering Herd defensive back who missed the flight due to injury pays tribute to his teammates who perished: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ivf6q_CHgQ

Thursday, August 16, 2018

My tribute to a Thundering Herd legend

Before leaving Marshall after the 1973 season,
Reggie Oliver owned all of Marshall's
passing records.
(Photo/Chief Justice yearbook)
 The passing away of Marshall University legend Reggie Oliver two days ago provides a sobering reminder. In this earthly life, death is inevitable.
     Reggie, who was 66, put his personal and permanent stamp on Thundering Herd football decades ago. He was an instrumental figure who helped resurrect the program in the years following the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the school's varsity team.
Trailblazer in pads
     In paying homage to Reggie, my schoolmate at MU, it's important to note that he was a true pioneer. During his era -- the early '70s -- black quarterbacks playing at predominantly white colleges was not a common occurrence like it is now. In my memoir November Ever After, I wrote that back in the day, black QBs at white schools were "as rare as polar bears in Panama."
     There's no question in my mind that Reggie Oliver was the right guy to handle the pressures and expectations that came with being Marshall's first black quarterback.
Nothing shy about Oliver
     Anyone who knew Reggie learned quickly that shyness was not one of his personality traits. Not only did he have the skill, swagger and work ethic to succeed, but he was among the best at talking smack. I believe that's why folks called him "Wolf." 
     It was always clear to me that Reggie had a thick skin, which served him well. That was critical because I'm sure there were people who wanted him to fail as a quarterback.
     Persevering on daily basis, Reggie helped to destroy the then-commonly-held notion that blacks didn't have the moxie, gamesmanship and passing arm to be a standout at a mainstream school. As things turned out, it didn't take long for Reggie to do his part in shattering the myth about black QBs.
Clutch performance
     In MU's first home game of the '71 season against Xavier of Ohio, Reggie, a sophomore, engineered what is arguably the most memorable game-winning play in college football history. On the final play of the game, "Wolf" capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Terry Gardner on a screen play.
     It was a fitting ending for a team and a town that suffered tremendous losses 10 months earlier when Marshall's plane crashed. There were no survivors among the 75 passengers on board.
Oliver was a guest speaker at Marshall
earlier this year.
(Photo/Herald-Dispatch)
Fans pour out of the stands
     The highly-charged crowd at Fairfield Stadium flooded the field right after the game. The cheers were thunderous. With Reggie calling the shots under intense pressure, Marshall pulled off a shocking 15-13 upset victory.
     There's no denying that Reggie carried a truck-load of personal pain because of the tragedy. He lost four dear friends (Larry Sanders, Joe Hood, Robert VanHorn and Freddie Wilson) on the night that Marshall's plane went down. 
They were more than teammates
     Their connection went beyond being teammates. They were Reggie's home boys who played  football for the same high school (Druid) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reggie came to Marshall with his childhood friends with one goal in mind: turn Marshall into a football powerhouse.
     When I interviewed Reggie for my book, I asked him how he managed to deal with his grief. Here's his response as it appears in the memoir.
Upbeat outlook
     "Having gone through that whole experience, you learn that it's not something you can practice," he said. "There's nothing anyone can do to prepare for that kind of situation. You just respond as best you can. It was a sad time, a bad time. But I don't dwell on that. The memories I have of the '70 team are good ones."
      Although Reggie is no longer with us, I believe those words apply to us today. We are sad about his passing away. Yet, there are tons of great memories of "Wolf" that will never fade away.
     Reggie Oliver was one of a kind. 
     He will be missed, but never forgotten.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

From time to time, after nearly half a century, I still think about all of the 'what ifs'

Thundering Herd running back Art Harris weaves his way downfield
during a 1970 home game against the University of Louisville.
(Photo courtesy of the Herald-Dispatch archives)
Forty-seven years after the fact, the images from an unforgettable college semester remain crystal clear in my mind.

It was a foggy, rainy and frigid night— a night when a college lost most of its football team in a horrible plane crash. Even with the passage of so many years, the memories of the deep hurt felt by students at Marshall University and the citizens of Huntington, West Virginia can never be erased. 

Personal history, mixed emotions

For me, November 14, 1970 is a part of my personal history that will always produce mixed emotions whenever I think about it.

Yes, there’s sadness and despair in remembering the sorrow caused by the tragedy. But there’s also joy in being an eye-witness. I watched and rejoiced as a decimated football program regrouped and moved forward in spite of suffering devastating losses.

From time to time, I’ve wondered about what Marshall football would be like if the rainy night in November turned out differently than it did.

  • What if there had not been a plane crash?
  • What if there had been no football recruiting scandal in 1969 that drastically reduced the Thundering Herd’s talent level?
  • Why didn’t my former teammates get the same opportunity as I did to pursue my goals and dreams after graduating from college?
  • On a very personal note ... Why am I still here?

These are questions that I’ve pondered from time to time. But as far as I can determine, no answers are forthcoming. And besides, it’s all speculation as to what could have been, what might have been, what should have been.

This is what I do know.

'1970 team left its mark

There is heart-warming consolation in knowing that the ’70 version of Marshall’s Thundering Herd left an indelible mark on the school and the community. Against overwhelming odds, the program continued to persevere. There’s no doubt that dedication and passion for the game laid the foundation for the football victories that were to come in later years.

That's the great news about this greatest story that's never been told.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Remembering Scottie ... my best friend ... my best man


Author's Note: Today marks the 47th anniversary of the Marshall football plane crash. On this occasion, I decided to write about a very good friend of mine who died on the night of November 14, 1970. While it's true that the people on that flight are long gone, rest assured that they will never be forgotten.

A week after the plane crash, I traveled to Waco, Texas to say my final goodbyes to one of the football  players who were among the 75 passengers who died. It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving . At that point in time, though, going home after a long semester to celebrate a holiday was the farthest thing from my bewildered mind.

Scottie Reese, a former teammate, was my best friend. Not only that, but he was going to be the best man at my wedding in December. At best, my recollections of any details about the funeral itself are fuzzy. Don't know why, but it's been that way for quite some time.

Scottie Reese 
(Player profile from the Thundering Herd's 1970 media guide)

"Reese has served as both linebacker and defensive end for Marshall, positions that usually call for more than 185 pounds of football player. He makes up for his lack of size and strength with quickness and intelligence and turned in a very good sophomore season last year. He'll be a contender for a spot somewhere on the defensive unit this time around."

What I remember most is arriving at Toliver Chapel Baptist Church about 45 minutes or so before the start of the service. I took a seat in one of the pews near the front of the sanctuary. All I could do was stare aimlessly at Scottie's casket. It's as if I was in a trance of some kind. Time stood still. Seven days had passed by since the crash when reality finally set in for me.  And when it did, I was crushed to my very core.

Coming to full acceptance was extremely difficult

On top of the casket was Scottie's No. 83 jersey and his portrait. Even then, I was still trying to mentally process all that happened during the week leading up to the funeral. In my mind, like so many others, I was fully aware of what had transpired. But it's quite another matter to come to full acceptance. 

Feeling overwhelmed by a heaviness of sorrow, I realized that No. 83 was gone and he was never going to come back. Ever.

As I looked around the church and then back to Scottie's casket, I had a flashback to eight days earlier. It was the last time that I would ever see Scottie alive. As he was leaving the lobby area of the Twin Towers dorm to get on the team bus headed to the airport, I told him that I would see him when he got back (from the road trip to East Carolina). But right after he walked past the dorm's front entrance, he turned around and looked at me for a second or two.

Everlasting memories

For the most part, this memory has stayed fixed in my mind. But for the life of me, I can't remember what color tie Scottie had on. But I do recall that he wore a black coat with a dress shirt that was Dallas Cowboys-blue. And he wore some pearly-white trousers that he had purchased from a well-known mail-order company from back in the day that offered the latest in fashion for black men.

Every time I think about that last interaction with Scottie, the song "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor always comes to mind. And it's so hard -- if not impossible -- to not get emotional because the lyrics truly do hit home -- especially  the last words from the chorus part of the song.

'But I always thought that I'd see you again.'

We both arrived as freshmen in '68

Scottie and I both played defense. He split time between defensive end and outside linebacker and I played safety. Both of us came to Marshall in 1968 and played key roles on what was arguably the best freshman football team in the school's history. In my one year on the varsity, we were roommates on road trips. 

As a person, Scottie's strongest attributes were his honesty and trustworthiness. That's what I appreciated the most about him.

It's been 47 years since Scottie died and a lot has happened over that span of time. Even so, I have some great memories of him. 

Scottie Reese will always be my best man.

Rest assured, the 1970 Thundering Herd will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Reader doesn't understand author's point of view about movie 'We Are Marshall'

When my memoir "November Ever After" had its initial launch, the daily newspaper where I live (Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina), published a column about it. The commentary, entitled "Setting the Marshall Story Straight" got its share of reader comments, which I always welcome and appreciate. 

There was one comment in particular that I felt I needed to address. This one reader could not understand why I feel the movie "We Are Marshall" doesn't do justice to the real story. No doubt, the movie gave the MU story a national stage. But just because a story attracts coast-to-coast interest doesn't set a precedent for distorting what really happened.


Kerrie Barnhart, who just happens to be a Marshall University graduate, was the reader who had a difficult time following my rationale about the movie. Since I'm the book's author,  I certainly had a ready response (see "Author's Counterpoint'). We both attended the same college, but don't know one another and have never met.

 Barnhart's point of view

 “We Are Marshall has a run time of two hours, 11 minutes. The horror of the night of November 14, 1970 took longer than that. There were so many sad, interesting and (eventually) wonderful stories that began that evening, but there's simply no way they could have all been included in a two-hour movie. 

With all due respect to Mr. Greenlee, nearly five years after the release of "WAM," I just don't understand the animosity about decisions that had to be made for a movie's running time.”

 Author's counterpoint

I agree that there’s only such much content that can be squeezed into a movie that lasts a little over two hours. The real issue is not the movie's run time. It’s about making sure that – within the time frame of the film – that the truth be fully acknowledged.

That’s really not too much to ask, especially when you recall this one sentence … “This is a true story.” Those words appear prominently on the screen at the very beginning of the movie.


A college and community dealt with heavy grief

The whole focus of "We Are Marshall" is to show how a college and a city managed to recover from such a horrific experience. Yet, it’s so strange that the movie never gave much information about the seventy-five passengers who died in that plane crash.

If there’s no tragedy, there is no comeback, and hence, no story line.

No film or documentary can truly be all-inclusive. Not many people will sit through a movie that’s longer than two-and-half hours. Books are no different. How many people will read 500, 800 or even 1,000 pages of somebody’s prose? Few, if any.

Here’s the bottom line. The movie pays homage to those who lost their lives on a November night a long time ago. If we’re really serious about that, what better way to honor them than to tell it like it really was?

Tell story thoroughly and tell it well

And even if you can’t include every aspect of the story, no biggie. Just take the content you have and tell it thoroughly, tell it well, and don’t abandon accuracy for the sake of artistic license.

Are the people from back in the day  way off base because they prefer the truth over a conjured up version of what really transpired? I don't think so. Let’s just say that it’s so sad that filmmakers are convinced they can improve the truth by improvising.

The real story is truly marvelous. There's no need for alterations of any kind.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Plane crash story loaded with ironies


The three players from Cincinnati, Ohio who perished in the Marshall
plane crash on November 14 1970. From left to right: Jack Repasy,
Bob Harris and Mark Andrews.
(Graphic -- Always Remembered by Susan A.)
There are a countless number of ironic circumstances associated with the Marshall football plane crash. In this week's blog entry, I'm focusing solely on one of those situations.

The 1970 Thundering Herd had three players – Bob Harris, Jack Repasy and Mark Andrews – who were teammates at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. When Marshall went on a road trip to play East Carolina, the parents of these three players drove south from Ohio to Greenville, North Carolina to watch their sons play.

After the game, Bob Harris Sr. and his wife wanted the three players to ride back with them to the school in Huntington, West Virginia. According to the senior Harris, the three players were reluctant to approach Marshall head coach Ricky Tolley about it.
       

The Cincinnati threesome played reasonably well in an agonizing 17-14 loss. Andrews was a key factor on the Thundering Herd's defensive line. Harris split time between playing quarterback and wide receiver. Repasy, a proven commodity at receiver, rarely dropped any ball thrown in his direction.

As things turned out, it would be the last time these parents would see their sons. Harris, Repasy and Andrews were among the 75 passengers on the DC-9 jet that crashed into the side of a mountain and burst into flames. There were no survivors.

“They were afraid because the coach was enraged because they had lost the game,” said Harris Sr. during an interview on the ESPN Classic documentary Remembering Marshall (2000). “They just didn’t want to ask him. And that haunts me to this day that I didn’t persist in getting them to ride back with us instead of going on the plane.”

After finishing his comments, tears start to well up in the eyes of the elder Harris. It was a clear sign that his recollections from that horrific November night continued to weigh heavily on his mind.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

'At one point, you felt terribly sad, but then you felt a closeness ... a love for each other ...'


Author's Note: Five days after the plane crash, a group of about 50-55 people representing Black United Students of Marshall University rode a chartered bus on a five-day trip that covered more than 1,500 miles. They attended a wake and three funerals at Bluefield, West Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Greenwood, South Carolina. This trip enabled these college students to say their good-byes to seven of the ten black football players who died. In my memoir, there's an entire chapter that goes into detail about that memorable journey.

Getting fifty seats on the chartered bus filled was not a problem. There was a strong sense of obligation to go on this trip. 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.

Book excerpt: 
'Homegoing Caravan'

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.

Widespread devastation

“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.”

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 on board who didn’t know at least one stanza of the black church hymn “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”

Emotional roller coaster

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.

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.

Long stretches of silence during the bus ride

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.

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.”