From "Out of Bounds"

Easter Heathman at the Rockne crash site memorial. Easter has been caretaker of the site for almost 70 years.

Easter Heathman at the Rockne crash site memorial. Easter has been caretaker of the site for almost 70 years.

This month's edition of Out of Bounds features a story of Easter Heathman, who as a 13-year old was a witness to the Rockne crash and for years has acted as the unofficial caretaker of the memorial site. It's from Senior Writer Dennis Dodd.

Seventy Years Later, Rockne Crash-Site Tribute Keeps Memory Alive

BAZAAR, Kan. -- Oh, the money that could have been made. Easter Heathman knows it. It wouldn't have been the first time a tragedy would have been converted into a comfortable living for some indecent huckster.

What Elvis is to the kitsch souvenir industry, Knute Rockne could have been to Heathman and his lonely seven-acre plot in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Squint your eyes and the scene looks like the Depression-era day of March 31, 1931, when a 13-year-old Heathman heard what sounded like two cars racing down the road.

"Then I came out and it was all quiet," said Heathman, looking back over seven decades to one of the turning points of the 20th century. "Not a sound. About that time, the phone rang."

It was at a spot not far from Heathman's home near Bazaar that the legendary Notre Dame football coach died in a plane crash along with seven others. The news of the end of Rockne's life changed Heathman's.


Saturday will mark 70 years since the teen-aged Easter came upon the mangled wreckage of the Fokker F-10. He is believed to be one of only three men still alive who were there that day to view the lifeless bodies of five passengers scattered alongside the wreckage. Three other bodies were still strapped in the fuselage.

He is the only one of the three to devote his life to the caretaking of the Rockne legend. It has become his destiny. On the day the winningest major-college coach in history died, Rockne's myth's also began to live. All because of a man whose first name means "resurrection", has the Rockne memory been preserved this vividly.

"It's a lot bigger attraction now than it was 60 years ago or 50 years ago," Heathman said of the 10-foot tall obelisk that marks the crash site. "I went to Notre Dame last year and arranged a meeting with (Notre Dame president emeritus) Father Theodore Hesburgh. In our conversation I said, 'Father, it's amazing how this has enriched my life.' 'Of course it has,' he said."

Heathman's life has converged at the intersection of the two most influential figures in Notre Dame history -- Hesburgh the academic leader and Rockne the football leader.

The crossroads have become part of Notre Dame lore. Out Route 1 in Kansas, just past the Bazaar Cemetery, sits Heathman's modest home. He moves a little slower now and his spirits are down. Heathman's wife, Betty, died just two weeks ago. But come unannounced or make an appointment, and Heathman will take you the mile or so through two cattle gates, a babbling creek and up, over and around the treeless Flint Hills to see the Rockne Memorial.

The middle-of-nowhere stone monument is surrounded by a stone fence and barbed wire. Not that anything or anyone would desecrate the site. Heathman's only company on a recent visit was a reporter and six wild horses which ran over the horizon to see what was happening, almost confused by the presence of humans. "It's given him a reason to be," said friend David Kil, Notre Dame's assistant registrar. "People start stopping by and he takes them up there. If they offer him money, he won't take it. If they insist he'll use it to put a new wreath out. He is an ambassador who is an unsung hero."

Because of Heathman's treatment of Rockne -- the man and the legend --the story has not faded. In fact, Saturday will be a full day for Heathman, 83. He will be taking relatives, historians and strangers to see the memorial.

But he will take no money. Never has.

"Because I'm old-fashioned, I don't believe money ought to be made off of something as tragic as this one," Heathman said. "Both times I was at Notre Dame, they introduced me to the Quarterback Club. They wanted autographs. It made me feel not too good. You know what I mean?"

Few would in this age. If Rockne had died today, his likeness would be plastered all over souvenir T-shirts. The crash site would be made into a voyeuristic pay-per-view tourist attraction.

Because of Heathman, decency rules. He cares for the memorial like one would care for a grave plot. He personally made eight wooden crosses to commemorate the dead. He sees to it that a new wreath is placed at the memorial each year.

The remote location of the crash site probably has helped keep it mostly pristine. The land hasn't changed much since 1931 when it was a 3,000-acre ranch owned by Seward Baker. His son, Edward Baker, had to run two miles to a telephone to call for help.

Heathman was shelling corn with his brothers that day when he heard the roar. Then ... "My Uncle Clarence seen it come out of the clouds," Heathman said. "He said the wing was broke off. The plane was turning end-over-end. You can picture in your own mind what that ride was like. " ... There wasn't any fire. There was the smell of gasoline and hot oil. I can still smell that today."

Over the years, Heathman has become a minor celebrity in the Notre Dame community. Heathman pulled out a box and showed a visitor an autographed game ball from Lou Holtz. He owns what are believed to be the only existing photos of the intact plane before the crash. Heathman had business cards printed that bear his name, phone number, address and the moniker: "A witness of the Knute Rockne crash." He has stared into the eyes of relatives of the dead who have come from across the country to view the barren prairie where their loved ones died.

"I think God blessed you with this incredible memory," Heathman remembers the wife of one of Rockne's grandsons telling him once, "so you could tell this story."

Countless times he has climbed into his pickup, crossed the two-lane and taken some stranger up into the Flint Hills. It isn't the desolation that brings them to stare at the memorial on which eight names were chiseled seven decades ago. You've got to have a good map and a good car (preferably with four-wheel drive) to get there.

It's a fascination with living oral history that brings them, because Heathman is about all that's left to tell the story of a momentous point in history. Fans, vacationers, professors and historians have come for decades, pausing at Heathman's for an entree into the past.

It will be history preserved in perpetuity. Five years ago, Heathman made a recording of his recollections and donated it to the National Air and Space Museum. No charge, of course.

The memories are as crisp as a Bazaar spring day. The sight of five lifeless bodies on an impressionable 13-year-old was imprinted forever. Young Easter didn't eat lunch or dinner that day.

"He remembered the face, he explained the face," Kil said. "It's rare that he would talk about what he saw. I don't tell anybody that for the benefit of the family, out of respect."


Despite stories to the contrary, the body of the great man was intact. Rockne wasn't found clutching a rosary, as some outlets reported, but he did have one in a pocket. As the bodies were loaded on stretchers, Heathman picked up a rubber wrap attached to the leg of one of the victims.

"On the 60th anniversary of the crash, Rockne's daughter was here," Heathman said. "I was telling her about this. She said, 'Yes, dad had phlebitis. He wore a wrap around that one leg. That was definitely him.'"

Over the years the curiosity seekers have made Route 1, Box 73 their launching point. Once, an elderly couple drove up from Florida in a Cadillac and got lost looking for the memorial. After hours of wandering around and near exhaustion from hiking, they found Heathman's house. He pumped fresh water from his well, refreshed the couple and took them to the site on his own.

"I got to thinking afterward that was a setup for a bad accident," Heathman said. "Two elderly people -- passing out, heat stroke, anything. Nobody would have known anything about it."

Twenty-eight years ago, a Notre Dame fan traveling back from vacation in Colorado was criss-crossing the Flint Hills trying to find the site. He stopped at the house of an elderly man and asked for directions. Heathman was that man. From that point on, he and Kil became comrades. Kil has arranged for Heathman to visit campus twice. Heathman donated the plane's gas cap to Notre Dame. It now resides in a display at the Joyce Center.

Amazingly, Heathman can go out any day and still pick up remains of the crash 70 years later. On Friday, he picked up three pea-sized pieces of glass from the plane's windows and gave them to a visitor. He has had a ring made out of a portion of the green landing light on the right wing. Don't think it gruesome. Heathman plans to surprise a relative of the pilot with it as a gift this weekend.

Rockne was only 43 when he died, at the height of his powers. Notre Dame had just come off a national championship in 1930. The country was coming out of the golden age of sport in the 1920s, an age that Rockne helped define with Notre Dame and "The Four Horsemen". At the time of his death, he was flying to Hollywood to negotiate a deal about a film documentary.

Rockne reportedly was ready to give up coaching after 1931, having already signed a promotion deal with Studebaker. The car company was already manufacturing the Studebaker Rockne Sedan Six 65 in early 1931 when the tragedy hit.

"In my opinion he was what you would call a straight, honest man and he liked to win football games," Heathman said. "His record still stands today -- 105-12-5. He loved every one of those players. The Gipper was his favorite."

"Rock" had lived the American dream. Born in Norway in 1888, his family moved to Chicago in 1891. Young Knute knocked around at odd jobs until scraping together enough money to attend Notre Dame in 1910.

After playing three years at Notre Dame, Rockne eventually was hired by Irish football coach and athletic director Jesse Harper to be head track coach and football assistant. Harper left in 1918 to assist with his in-laws' 20,000-acre ranch in Kansas.

Rockne was handed the job at age 30 and won more than 88 percent of his games over the next 13 years. The rate of success hasn't been approached since.

"He wasn't a go-getter, he was a go-giver," Kil said. "He gave of himself entirely. He was an excellent mentor of youth. ... He could motivate some kid to believe he was one of the best running backs around or one of the best blockers around. He always did it with kindness and caring."

There is anguish in everything that happened that fateful day. Rockne missed seeing his sons, Knute Jr., 14, and Billy, 11, by 20 minutes. The boys were traveling back from vacation with their mother to school in Kansas City. Rockne had spent the night in Chicago and arrived in Kansas City at 7 a.m. His family's train from Miami was delayed. Finally, he had to leave for the airport.

The night before in Chicago, friend Al Fuller wished Rockne a happy landing. "Thanks Al," Rockne reportedly said, "but I'd prefer just an ordinary soft landing." About 90 minutes into the flight, the plane went down in fog and cold temperatures in the pasture 60 miles northeast of Wichita.

The switchboard at nearby Cottonwood Falls was jammed with calls from relatives and friends trying to find out the fate of their loved ones. Rockne's funeral was broadcast in Europe and Asia. He was knighted posthumously by Norwegian King Haakon V.

In Depression-era America, the news hit like another punch to the gut. "It is not untrue to say that no death within the confines of the United States caused more grief and depression in those years," one historian wrote in 1943.

Heathman has led a long and healthy life but his efforts will not go on forever. His preservation of a legend without compensation should be one of the biggest stories of the 21st century when it is re-told.

"I talked to his daughter," Kil said. "What's going to happen when Easter goes? What's going to happen to the monument? I care about your dad a lot. We've become very, very close friends. We go way back. That engenders a bond that is almost inexplicable.

"She wrote me last week and said possibly her son will do the best he can. But I don't think there's going to be anybody like Easter because he was one of the ones at the crash site. He has first-hand knowledge."

Nothing can replace that.


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