It is Spring 2011, and the Flint Hills of Kansas are ablaze as they have been for thousands of years. In the far distant past, the fires were begun by lightning. Today, ranchers who stock the hills with cattle for market burn the grass to remove weeds and to restore the nutrients. This annual rite of burning is celebrated each year by Kansas Flint Hills Adventures. It can also be observed by the traveler along Interstate 35 between Emporia and Wichita, but be careful as the smoke can make driving hazardous.
Kansas weather can be fickle - one day sunny and sixty, the next day a blizzard. This is especially so in spring, when the cold Canadian fronts battle the warmer weather of the south. Kansas weather takes on the personality of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the result can be deceptively dangerous.
So it was 80 years ago, on March 31, 1931, when a single engine plane carrying Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and 7 other passengers crashed on a stormy and foggy day. The tragic event has been remebered annually by family members and again, eighty years to the date, family members, including those of Knute Rockne, gathered at the crash site near Bazaar, Kansas. This time it was a beautiful Spring day.
The AP wire service reported the crash and it became front page news across America.
KNUTE ROCKNE, famous football coach of Notre Dame university, and seven others were killed when a Trans-Continental and Western air passenger and mail plane crashed in flames today in a pasture several miles southwest of Bazaar, Kas.
ROCKNE boarded the plane here en route to California at 9:15 a. m. and about 11 a. m. the ship identified by its department of commerce license number, crashed and burned as it fought a fog and storm en route to Wichita, Kas.GenDisasters, as posted by Stu Beitler.
The plane, a Fokker Trimoter, went down when the wing separated from the plane. A young boy working in a field feeding cattle witnessed the tragedy. He heard a terrific explosion in the foggy sky. Looking up he saw an airplane burst into flames and rocket toward the earth.When he came to the crash site, he found that all were dead.
Kansas Turnpike Authority
The traveler can view a memorial to Knute Rockne and the others who died at the Matfield Green service area at milepost 97 on the Kansas Turnpike, between Wichita and Emporia.
The memorial includes large photos of Rockne during his playing and coaching days, as well as some photos from his business ventures as a motivational speaker. Also shown are some of his well-known plays as a coach and speeches made to his players. Many of the images at Matfield Green are posted by Irish Musings.
Tragic events touch all of us. The cause of the crash, the structural components of the wing, led to an investigation and improvements in existing and new planes. But there was also a personal side to the story.
I have traveled the Kansas Turnpike between Overland Park and Wichita for over 20 years. Often I will stop at the Matfield Green rest area and view the life-size image of Knute Rockne. But it was only when a long standing customer came into the store that I learned of the personal connection for our customer.
Chicago native, John Happer, a friend of Knute Rockne, happened to be on the same plane. Mr. Happer worked for Great Western Sporting Goods, now Wilson Sporting Goods. And he, like Knute, was on his way to California on business. In Knute's case, it was to help in the filming of the movie The Spirit of Notre Dame.
Mr. Happer was our good customer's grandfather.