A 15-hour journey by car from Traverse City to Wichita, Kansas took 30 years for Bill Burch.
One of the reasons — the main one — Burch physically avoided a return to Wichita State University was the mental pain of the survivor’s guilt he felt by not making the trip for a football game against Utah State more than 49 years ago. Burch, now a businessman in Traverse City, was supposed to be on the fatal airplane crash on Oct. 2, 1970.
The crash on a mountainside in Colorado killed football teammates. It made an orphan of the football coach’s daughter. It wiped out couples inside and out of Wichita State athletics.
Burch thought he was the only one outside of his teammates to feel that way. He certainly was the only one in northern Michigan.
He was wrong.
An emotional Merry (Worden) Ball of Leland called me the morning after the story was published, still shook from Burch’s tale. That’s because she was supposed to be on that flight as well with her then husband, George Worden, a vice president of development at Wichita State University.
Like an injury may have saved Burch’s life, a business meeting may have saved Ball’s. She said the cancellation was so last-minute that she and her husband were listed on the initial report of crash victims.
“When the original passenger manifest came out, our names were on it,” Ball said. “We canceled at the last minute. It was probably late at night.”
Ball said she and her husband were best friends with Wichita State athletic director Bert Katzenmeyer and his wife, Marian. Both Katenmeyers died in the crash.
Soon after hearing about the plane crash, Ball said she went to the Katzenmeyer home to tidy up before people started arriving for the funerals.
The crash instantly made an orphan of Kay Katzenmeyer, who came to live with the Wordens for a time.
If not for that business meeting, Ball’s daughter, Kathy, then age 9, would have been without her parents as well.
“To think she would have been left with us gone just blows your mind,” Ball said. “When you think about what might have been, that’s the hard thing.
“The side stories are always interesting and always affect the people who weren’t on the plane like we were.”
That’s why Ball wanted to get in touch with Burch; they shared the same story.
But that’s not where the ripple from the Great Plains to the Great Lakes stopped.
The article about Burch also “struck a chord” with Celia Hastings of Ellsworth. John and Celia Hastings were newlyweds living in Wichita, Kansas on Oct. 2, 1970. John Hastings was stationed at McConnell Air Force Base from 1969-71.
“We recall how eerily quiet the whole city was during that time,” Celia Hastings said in the email. “On weekends it was common for teenagers to ‘drag Douglas,’ a main street through the city, but no one did that weekend.”
Celia Hastings wanted Burch to know that “we haven’t forgotten.”
That’s still not where the story ends.
Stephen Ward, a Long Lake Township man stopped into Burch’s Cartridge World franchise after reading the article. Burch said they had a great conversation about not only the Wichita State plane crash, but also the one that happened to the Marshall University football team a month later.
Ward’s father Parker was a booster for the West Virginia university. He was one of 75 people on board when it went down. There were no survivors.
Ward was 5 years old at the time. His mother, Mary Plyde Bell, had remained behind to stay with her 10-day-old sister, Elizabeth, and older siblings Sharon, 8, and Parker, 12.
“There were four of us at home,” Ward said.
As he recalled, Ward said there were about eight couples on board that Nov. 14, 1970 flight.
“A lot of my friends lost both their mom and dad,” he said. “We were one of the lucky ones.”
There is a fountain on the Marshall campus that is turned off every Nov. 14 in a memorial ceremony. The football team turns it back on every spring on the first day of spring practice. Ward spoke at the event a handful of years ago when it fell on a Saturday that coincided with a home game on a beautiful November day.
“That was pretty intense,” Ward said, recalling the 3,000 people in attendance.
Ward attended a special premiere of the “We Are Marshall” film when it was released in 2006. He intends to give Burch a copy of the film, a separate tragic tale that the two share along with Ball and Hastings.
Burch said telling his story was very therapeutic as the 50th anniversary of both crashes rolls around in 2020.
I was glad and fortunate to provide the free therapy.