FORMER SUBWAY ALUMNI LEADER REFLECTS ON HIS "NOTRE DAME ODYSSEY"
The other day, the sports section of an Indiana newspaper, I chanced upon a story about the approach of spring training for the Notre Dame football team. And it turned my thoughts back to another spring in South Bend long ago.
It's been 46 years this week since that bleak, rain-swept March day when Knute Rockne died in the crash of a California-bound airplane near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.
But to me the memories of that day -and the last time I saw the "Spirit of Notre Dame" -are still vividly imprinted on my mind.
In today's cynical world -a world in which terrorism, violence and corruption are common place and heroes have feet of clay -the sudden death of a person too often is viewed with little emotion, as just another unfortunate happening that will be quickly forgotten in the gloom and doom of the next day's news.
Back in the Thirties we lived in a more innocent age, times were tough in those Depression days. But we still had faith in ourselves and our leaders, hope for a better tomorrow and a deep devotion to the bigger-than-life heroes who inspired us with their words and deeds.In that era of hero-worshiping, perhaps the biggest hero of all was Knute Rockne, the Norwegian-born athlete who "invented" the forward pass back in 1913, the legendary Notre Dame coach who, more than any other man, transformed football into a major national sport. And, when Rockne died, South Bend -and the entire nation -were plunged into a paroxysm of grief.
Ath the time, I was news editor of the South Bend News-Times. On the morning of March 30, 1931, I assembled with other members of a downtown coffee klatch -John Brennan, Notre Dame's professor of literature; Vincent Fegan, professor of architecture; George Keogan, basketball coach of the Fighting Irish, and hotel detective John Sweeney -for breakfast at the Oliver Hotel.
We had just started giving the waitress our orders when another coffee klatcher -the "Rock" -hurried into the hotel dining room, his broad, rugged face breaking into a wide grin as he boomed out a greeting.
There was the customary joshing and talk about Notre Dame's football prospects for the 1931 season -a season which was due to be previewed with the start of spring training in April.
Rockne had lost several of his big stars from the 1929-30 national championship teams -All-America quarterback Frank Carideo, halfback Marty Brill and right end and team captain Tom Conley.
"It's going to be tough to replace them," Rockne admitted. "But we're going to have some real good boys -Schwartz, Kosky, Lukats, Yarr, Cronin, Mahoney and a lot of others. I'm anxious to get things rolling when I get back into town next week."
"Where you heading this time?" Keogan asked.
"Oh, I've got some business to take care of for Studebaker out on the coast," Rockne, who served as national sales director for the Hoosier car manufacturer in addition to his coaching, said. "I suppose you'll be flying," Sweeney said.
"Not all the way. I'm going to take the South Shore electric to Chicago to visit my mother, then go by midnight sleeper to Kansas City where I'll make connections on a flight to Los Angeles."
"Knute, you ought to stay away from those planes," Sweeney said. "They're not safe."Rockne laughed. Since the late Twenties when his business and professional interests began to expand far beyond the South Bend campus, Rockne had become somewhat of a coast-to-coast commuter. In those early years of air travel, he had become a flying enthusiast - an enthusiasm which few of we earth-bound mortals shared during the days before transcontinental jet service.
"George," he said, "I'll tell you the same thing I told a fellow on a flight from Atlanta to Miami a year or so ago. I'm a fatalist. I believe each of us has a time to go, and when that time comes, no matter where we are, death strikes. So I figure it might as well be a plane as anywhere else. Up in the sky at least, I'll have a head start for heaven'
A few minutes later, Rockne gulped down the last of his coffee and hurried from the hotel to catch the South Shore train to Chicago, the beginning of his rendezvous with death, for the man who first gained fame in the air on the football field -via the forward pass -was destined to die in the air .
About 11 o'clock the next morning, the telephone in the sports cubicle at the News-Times rang insistently, but no one answered. Our sports editor and his assistant were in the composing room, helping make up the afternoon edition. When the phone kept ringing, I finally left my desk and answered it. A boy's plaintive voice was at the other end of the line.
"I just heard on the radio that Mr. Rockne was killed. It just can't be true, can it. ..Mr. Rockne dead?"
Dazed by the news, I managed to tell the boy that I had received no reports on Rockne's death. At the time, though, radio was beginning to replace the telegraph for speedy news transmission. And I realized -particularly in my knowledge that Rockne had planned to catch a plane that morning -that radio quite likely had beaten other media, including the wire services, with the news.
After the first shock, I had to push aside personal feelings and get on the trail of what could be a blockbuster story. I alerted our city desk, and reached for a telephone to call the United Press bureau at Chicago.
Earl Johnson, the United Press manager, answered my call. He had heard nothing about Rockne's death, but promised to make an immediate contact with the Kansas City bureau. A call to International News Service at Chicago produced the same results. No news, but they'd check.
By the time Johnson called me back, our news people were busily assembling background material and photographs on Knute Rockne and then the United Press bureau chief verified the radio report. The Notre Dame coach and seven others had been killed that morning when a TWA (Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc.) plane lost a wing and crashed while flying through the chilly, foggy weather in Western Kansas.
I got all the details that United Press and International News could provide from Chicago, then telephoned the Kansas City Star. They had a country correspondent at Bazaar, Kansas, near the site of the crash, and I was able to get additional on-the-scene information for our coverage of the tragedy.
Meanwhile, as news of Rockne's death spread like wildfire through South Bend, a large crowd began gathering at the two entrances to the News-Times editorial offices. Finally, we had to rope off the entrances and post guards to hold back the frantic crowd.
Christy Walsh, the syndicate manager for Rockne's annual AII-America football team selections, charged into the telegraph room and tried to tear the news reports off the tickers before we editors had a chance to see them. When Walsh refused to calm down, we forcibly ejected him from the newsroom, and continuing battling against time to get South Bend's biggest story on the streets.
News-Times reporter Tom Coman, who was writing the biography of Rockne for United Press, had left all of his notes at home. But working from memory, he sat down and wrote our main story, weaving together his knowledge of the man with the facts we had gathered from various sources.
Page by page, Coman's story went to our copy desk for editing, and then to the composing room for typesetting and make-up of the paper. In addition, we had other related stories and a page of pictures. By the time we went to press, that day's edition of the News-Times included five pages dealing with Rockne's death, with wide, black rules between columns as a sign of mourning that had emerged in American journalism when President Lincoln was assassinated.
Indeed, the black column rules symbolized the nation's mourning for a man who had come to America from Norway with his parents at the age of five, a man who labored for five years in the Chicago postoffice, at $5 a week, to raise money to attend a small Indiana Catholic college named Notre Dame.
It was in 1911 that Rockne entered Notre Dame, and he remained there the rest of his life, as a star football player, as assistant chemistry professor, assistant football coach and, starting in -1917, head football coach -a span of years in which the South Bend school emerged from obscurity to become one of the nation's major educational institutions.
By the time Rockne's body was brought home by train on the night of April 1, thousands of outsiders had converged on South Bend to join the local residents in mourning his death. The train that carried his body included one special car for members of the nation's press and another car for close friends and prominent Notre Dame alumni.
Outside the South Bend railway station, sidewalks and streets were jammed with grieving humanity. Mourners stood bareheaded in the cool, overcast spring night -some weeping, some praying -as an honor guard of former Notre Dame football players removed Rockne's flower- covered casket from the train and placed it in a hearse from McGann's Mortuary.
In addition to the crowd that surged in and around the train station, other mourners lined the streets leading to the funeral home. Even though it was nearly midnight by the time the funeral train arrived, police estimated that some 10,000 persons were waiting to pay tribute to Rockne.
Despite the large crowds, a hush layover South Bend as the hearse slowly headed for the funeral home along a route where, just a few months earlier, Rockne and his national championship football team had victoriously paraded after trouncing their traditional foe, the University of Southern California, at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Across the nation, thousands of tributes were written, and spoken, including a column by famed columnist and author Damon Runyon, who said : "It was Rockne, with his marvelous football teams and through his own powerful personality who made football the national institution it is today. ..He made his alma mater the dream goal of nearly every boy in the land."
With funeral services scheduled for Saturday, April 4 -four days after the March 31 plane crash -grieving for the dead hero continued to mount.
Rockne's body was placed on a bier in the Church of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus. Here, 2,000 students knelt in prayer before the high altar where, in 1925, Rockne had knelt to become a member of the Catholic Church. Here, thousands filed past his bier in silent homage.
From all parts of the nation, men whom Rockne had coached during his years at South Bend -a 13-year span in which Notre Dame teams won 105 games, tied 5 and lost only 12 - converged on Indiana to pay their last respects to the "Rock."
In fact, the assemblage of mourners grew so rapidly that a group of South Bend businessmen proposed that the Rockne funeral services be held at the university's football stadium. But Father Charles L. O'Donnell, president of Notre Dame, quickly rejected that idea. Nevertheless, the funeral mass at Sacred Heart was broadcast coast to coast by Ted Heusing, the ace newscaster and commentator for Columbia Broadcasting System.
At last, after I had completed coverage of the Rockne services and burial, and gotten another edition of the News-Times on the press, I walked out into the cool April evening. The darkening streets of South Bend -after being crowded for days with a mourning public -were nearly deserted.
As I walked past the houses that lined the street, I could hear radio newscasters -the new "invaders" of the Fourth Estate -describing the events of the long, sad day. I thought how simple it must be to merely talk the news into a microphone instead of struggling through the agonies attending the birth of a daily newspaper .
Later, as I found myself walking toward the Notre Dame campus, I remembered the Rockne legends -how he'd worked in 1913 at a summer resort with his Notre Dame teammate, Gus Dorais, to perfect the forward pass play that stunned a powerful Army team a few months later; how he'd developed the famed 1924 'Four Horsemen" backfield that swept Notre Dame to its first national championship; how he'd used the dying words of his most famous player, George Gipp, to inspire a losing Fighting Irish squad to "win one for the Gipper."
I remembered that last time I saw the "Rock" -his fatalistic views on flying and his eager anticipation of spring training.
Spring training will begin next week, I thought, but Rockne won't be there to start building a new team of champions. And for the first time in years, I wept.
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