By: Gary Dove
WN Sports Writer
Anniversaries are supposed to be happy occasions.
Other anniversaries, although not happy, stick with us for many reasons.
The Saturday, November 14, 1970 plane crash that killed all 75 aboard as the Marshall football team, coaches, athletic officials and boosters returned to Huntington from a game at East Carolina is one of the latter.
Ironic, I suppose, that this 50th anniversary is this Saturday, the same day of the week as the devastating plane crash.
I don’t remember anything from that fateful day, up until around 6:45 that evening.
I suppose I did things a twenty year old, senior in college did.
That evening I went to Mayor Masel Perdue’s gas station in Keystone to meet some friends and just go “hang out” for the evening. We guys often did that when we didn’t have dates on a Friday or Saturday night.
Whatever I did that day hadn’t included keeping the television or radio on.
Masel greeted me as usual, but then said something about how terrible the Marshall plane crash was.
I quizzed him about what had happened and he related what little he knew.
I just felt sick, so I told him I was going home and please tell the other friends that I wasn’t going out with them that evening.
From what little I knew and how any loss of life was and is just that – a loss, I have later reflected that these football players were the same age as me and were football players on top of that. Those two, plus many more that have come over the last 50 years devastated me.
I knew the names of some of the coaches, although I had not met but one, Red Dawson.
Fortunately Red drove back to see a prospective recruit and wasn’t on the flight.
The other 75 weren’t so fortunate.
Head coach Rick Tolley was from Mullens and played his high school sports for the Rebels.
That became an instant bond for me.
I found out later that night, or more probably Sunday, that Dennis Blevins, who graduated from Park Central High School in Bluefield, was one of the players who perished. I casually knew Dennis, or Michael as he was called by his friends and family.
Red Dawson had been a keynote speaker at a Northfork High School athletic banquet at some point prior to November 14, 1970. I haven’t looked it up, but it was most likely the spring of that year, or the spring of 1969.
He was most personable and someone I spoke with for five minutes or so after the banquet, as most were talking with others or leaving.
Fortunately Red is still with us.
Over the next 20 or so years, I read everything I could get my hands on or find about the plane crash.
I had to travel all the way to California to get an “up close” view of that time in Marshall history.
I was sitting on a deck at a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a friend, Jim Wilson from Point Pleasant.
We had known each other for years and developed a friendship because our jobs were similar. We were each General Managers for our respective beer distributorships, he in Point Pleasant and me in Welch.
I knew nothing of Jim’s past, not even where he had gone to college, and all of a sudden, he brought up the subject of the Marshall plane crash.
He said he had been one of five student trainers for the 1970 Herd football team. Not all accompanied the team on away games, but it was his turn to make the trip to East Carolina on November 14, 1970.
He related that about Tuesday of the week leading up to Saturday’s game, the head student trainer, who was from Dingess in Mingo County, approached Jim and asked if he would trade games because he had something to do the next week (November 21) and would like to switch.
Jim said he had no problems with that and so the trade was made.
Donald Tackett, that head student trainer, was among the 75 who perished that Saturday evening just a short distance from the Huntington airport.
Jim’s account so touched me that I called him, I think in 2000, not long before the 30th anniversary of the crash and asked if I could interview him for a story in the upcoming Welch News about the plane crash.
He agreed and I wrote a story after talking at length with Jim about that time in not only Marshall history, but in West Virginia history.
I later learned from the late Bill Clark, who owned a restaurant in Princeton at the time of the crash and Dennis Blevins’ mother worked for him as a cook, that he saw the newsbreak on television and without divulging details, gave Mrs. Blevins the remainder of that evening off and drove her home to Bluefield, dodging her queries about why he was giving her what had promised to be a busy Saturday night off from work.
Bill kept her at bay until they pulled onto the street where she lived. Neighbors, relatives and friends were gathered and suddenly she knew, “It’s Michael, isn’t it?”
She had revealed to Bill and he passed along to me that this was Dennis’ first airplane flight.
Years later, although I had known him for a while, basketball referee Lou Peake from Huntington, was also a student athletic trainer on that 1970 team, along with Jim Wilson, Donald Tackett and two others.
I tried after I found out to speak with Lou about the crash, but, understandably, he declined to talk about it.
He has opened up more in recent years, but it still has made a lasting impression.
Lou had taken the path of going into the Army after high school and before college. He served as a medic, so it was only natural on that fateful night to recruit him to search the hillsides near the crash, first because he was a trained medic and second because he knew all the players and coaches and could help identify them, or more hopefully administer immediate first aid, in the event someone was found alive.
Unfortunately the former did not happen.
As we honor and commemorate those who perished that rainy, foggy November evening 50 years ago, we remember with sadness, but rejoice at the rising from the ashes the University and the football program have experienced and Saturday, we are all one: “We Are Marshall!”