This article originally appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Notre Dame Magazine. We republish it here as part of Magazine Classics, a new series highlighting notable works from the magazine's archives. There is renewed interest in this red dot near Emporia, Kansas, this week, as the land on which the Rockne Memorial is located is scheduled to be sold at public auction tomorrow, February 23, 2018, by Griffin Real Estate and Auction Service.
I was flipping through the pages of my new road atlas, planning a cross-country motorcycle trip, when I saw it. As Route 70 headed west out of Kansas City near the town of Emporia, there was a little red dot indicating the Rockne Memorial. My mind flashed back to the movie, the books and the lore I had grown up with, and I knew I had to include it in the trip. The Rocky Mountains would have to wait one more day.
I was now two days out from the pancake house in Fort Lauderdale. My wife had kissed me goodbye in the parking lot after breakfast as she knowingly released me for two weeks of middle-age folly. A cool misty morning easing my way to the banks of the Mississippi turned into a hot afternoon ride across Missouri. I had made good time the previous day and had spent the night near Mount Vernon, Illinois. I had gone to bed exhausted and sore. By the third day, my body was adapting. The Harley liked the long runs.
Route 64 into Saint Louis was a picture postcard of Midwestern farms. It gave way to the tension of city traffic around Saint Louis and a long haul across Missouri in the increasing heat of the midday July sun. I had to stay alert in the labyrinth of Kansas City to pick up Highway 35 toward Emporia. I got off the highway in Emporia and felt a sense of accomplishment. My goal was within reach.
At a small service station in the Emporia area, I asked the attendant if she knew where the Knute Rockne Memorial was located. She stared at me blankly. This was the first indication that finding the little red dot might not be so easy. I went to the pay phone and called the Emporia Chamber of Commerce. I told a man who at first sounded chipper that I had called a few months ago about the Knute Rockne Memorial. Someone in the Chamber of Commerce had told me that the little red dot on the map was no mistake. He responded that while he thought that the memorial existed he did not know where and he did not think it was on public land. He suggested that I go to Cottonwood Falls and ask someone there. I had always dwelt in big cities, originally Chicago and now Fort Lauderdale, and this suggestion did not resonate with my urban instincts. But I figured I did not travel all that distance not to try, so I mounted up and headed west on Route 50.
Cottonwood Falls is a wonderful little town. I’m sure that the folks there think it’s big enough, but it only has one main street. A few pedestrians looked suspiciously at my passage. I parked my bike and looked around at the signs and store windows. An attorney’s office looked promising.
The attorney wasn’t in but his secretary was. She knew the Rockne Memorial was down the road aways. In fact it was almost across the street from the Heathman Ranch. She would call the Heathmans and see if they could help. After a few silent moments on the phone however, she told me the Heathmans were not home. She gave me a small photocopy map and indicated where the ranch was and approximately where the Rockne Memorial was located. I thanked her and went outside and studied the map. If I proceeded south on 177 beyond the town limits, it appeared that the road bent off to the right almost even with the town of Bazaar. The road then bent back to the left and shortly after that bend was the Heathman Ranch on the left and the Rockne Memorial was a little further on the right.
I followed this route, studying both sides of the road, but I couldn’t be sure which was which. There was no indication of any monument. I came to the railroad tracks and knew this was too far south. I turned around and headed back slower than the first time but equally unsuccessful. Again I pulled a U-turn back to the south and just before the first bend stopped the motorcycle in the middle of the road. There was no traffic on this narrow two-lane highway. I looked off to the west and into the lowering sun and took note that somewhere out there in those rolling Flint Hills, Rockne met his untimely death in a storied 1931 plane crash. I tried hard to savor the moment, figuring this was as close as I would get.
Just then I heard some noise off to my left and saw some men in a field picking up bales of hay. I would give it one last shot. I parked the bike at a gap in the fence. Then, feeling very much like a city slicker, I lumbered across 40 or so yards of plowed field. The men stared at my approach.
“Can I help you?” said the man on top of the machine. Don’t ask me what kind of machine it was.
“Is this the Heathman Ranch?”
“No, that’s the next ranch north.”
“You fellas don’t know where the Rockne Memorial is do you?”
“No,” he answered slowly while scanning the horizon. “I know it’s around here somewhere, but we’re really not from these parts, just here doin’ a job.”
“Sure. Nice bike.”
I mounted up and headed around the now familiar bend, stopping the bike by the sidewalk to the next house. As I walked across the big wooden porch, I noticed that only the screen door was closed. The big wooden door was thrown all the way open.
I knocked loudly on the door, waited, and knocked again. I figured that either no one was home or they were home and not about to answer the door for some strange-looking biker. I walked back down the front porch steps and leaned on the motorcycle. It would be good to get going again since the wind at highway speeds was the only thing that could take the edge off of the heat. I did want to stop for a moment to reflect on small-town living. There really was more space, the pace was slower, the people were friendly, and the doors were unlocked.
It was a nice feeling. But my meditation was broken up by the sound of a car coming up the drive. It was an older car but except for a little fading of the blue paint, well maintained. I felt immediate trepidation. What would these folks do upon seeing a sinister figure on the front walk of their home? As the car came closer, I realized that it was occupied only by an elderly woman. She drove up close to me and locked the brakes with gravel flying.
“I am sorry that I wasn’t here for you. I am Mrs. Heathman,” she said excitedly.
I introduced myself, explained my purpose and apologized for bothering her.
“Nonsense! Come on in,” she said.
As she opened the door, I felt an overwhelming urge to tell her that she shouldn’t let strangers in her house. She was too deliberate and quick for any such interjections so I simply followed her and had a seat at the kitchen table. As I drank a soda, she ambled through the house shouting, “Easter! Easter! Are you there?” She came back and announced that she had feared Easter had left.
Easter was her husband, and he had gone this afternoon to another town to help his son move. She said that Easter knew exactly where the Rockne Memorial was and he would take me over there himself if he were home. Unfortunately she did not expect him back for a day or two.
“Could you stay until he comes back?” she asked.
I explained that I had to be in Denver the next day.
She shook her head. “That’s a shame because Easter really likes to take folks out there. He was there you know.”
“He was where?”
“He was there when the plane crashed. He was just a boy but he remembers it like it was yesterday.”
A rush of excitement ran through me but quickly faded. There are few remaining eyewitnesses to the legend of Rockne, and the enticing thought of talking to one of them was countered by the depression of having missed the opportunity.
Mrs. Heathman didn’t share my interest in the monument. She knew it was there, but it was something she allowed Easter to have all to himself. She thought it was a mile or two off the road but did not know exactly where.
“So do you think if I parked the bike, climbed the fence, and took a walk back in there I could find it?” I pressed.
“That’s funny country back there. Everybody thinks it’s flat but it’s really not. I would be worried about you going back there, especially in this heat.”
It seemed a simple matter to me to climb a fence and walk a mile or so. “Do you think it’s dangerous?” I asked.
“I just think you could get lost back there. I wish Easter was here and he would take you there himself. He has the key to the gate and you could drive back there with him. Are you sure you can’t come back?”
“No, I can’t,” I said, although I was already trying to figure out a way that I could. “Whose land is that anyway?”
“There’s a new owner. Just bought the land recently. He’s a Texan. He seems like a nice enough fellow, but I don’t know him very well.”
“Mrs. Heathman, I came all the way from Fort Lauderdale and I really would like to see the monument. I think I’m just going to go down there and hop over the fence and walk back a little way. If I can’t see it after awhile I will give up.”
“Easter always said it was straight back from the corral area,” she said, conspiring with me. “You follow the bend around away and if you look along the fence you’ll see a small corral. There’s a gravel turn-in right there where you can leave your motorcycle. The gate is right there at the other side of the corral. Like I said, Easter has the key to the lock, but I don’t know where he keeps it.”
“That’s okay, Mrs. Heathman, I can climb over the fence.” I thanked her for being so hospitable. I was still in a state of bewilderment as to how friendly she was with an absolute stranger. She seemed to have a genuine interest in the motorcycle and let out a holler and a laugh when she heard the engine roar.
“You be careful now!” she yelled.
Her serious tone gave me pause. “If I go out on that fella’s property you don’t think he’ll shoot me do you?”
“Well I don’t know. He is a Texan!”
She chuckled, but it made me wonder. I waved and rode down the driveway and took a left at the highway. After the bend in the road I looked for the corral. It was in disrepair but the gravel turn-off was good enough to accommodate the bike. I approached the fence with deliberate steps, then with one of those oh well, here we go kind of sighs, put a leg up on the fence.
At that moment I heard a sharp loud crack, then another, and another. My reflexes made me duck. Just when I thought that maybe the sound was deceptively distant, I heard it again and saw him. He was on the opposite side of the corral hammering a crossboard into place. He was medium height and thin but had limbs that were used to working. He looked to be in his late 50s. I quickly retreated from my climbing posture. He came toward me with a mallet clenched in his hand.
“Can I help you?” he drawled with a less than interrogatory tone.
“Are you the owner of this property?”
“This is my land you’re standing on.”
“Mrs. Heathman told me I might find you over here,” I said, hoping to diffuse the situation by interjecting a common friend.
“Yup, I’m here.”
I got right to the point and asked him if the Rockne Memorial was on his ranch.
“Yup, there’s a stone back there anyways.”
“Would you mind if I go back there and take a look at it?”
“No! You can’t go back there.” He must have read the disappointment on my face. “I got cattle back there. The fence ain’t fixed and you’ll scare the cattle. I’ll lose my cattle.”
My eyes dropped dejected toward the ground.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I called the Chamber of Commerce in Emporia from Fort Lauderdale months ago, and they told me that the monument was here and people visit it all the time.”
“Folks in Emporia don’t know much,” he retorted.
“Yeah, but it took me 2,000 miles to figure that out.”
“You drove that motorcycle all the way from Fort Lauderdale?”
“Why did you want to see that monument anyway?”
“Well, I’m a Notre Dame fan. I went to school there, so did my dad and my grandfather. I know almost everything about Notre Dame football, especially Rockne. My dad was there in the Rockne era. He played on the freshman team but had to take a year off school because of the Depression. He had to work to make the tuition money. One of the jobs he had was as a laborer on Rockne’s stadium. Then in 1931 Rockne died. Everyone at Notre Dame was devastated.” I looked over his shoulder to the western horizon. “And he died right out there on March 31, 1931.”
“What do you do for a living back in Fort Lauderdale?” he asked after a pause.
“I’m a surgeon.”
“You’re a surgeon, a medical doctor surgeon?”
“Where did you get your medical degree?”
“Northwestern University in Chicago.”
“Where’s your liver?”
“Yeah, your liver. Where’s it located in your body and what’s it attached to?”
The question baffled me, but then I figured out what he was up to. He was a tough, proud man and wasn’t about to be fooled. He had probably had his gallbladder removed and knew a little bit about the anatomy and function, and he would use that knowledge to call my bluff. I answered his question at length and obviously to his satisfaction.
“Well, if you pull your motorcycle up about a quarter-mile and turn in the dirt road you can park it down by that gate. Nobody will bother it there. I’ll meet you down there and drive you back.”
I was stunned. “I thought you said I couldn’t go.”
“You can’t go by yourself ‘cause you’ll scare the cows. But I’ll drive you.”
“What made you change your mind?”
He stopped, turned, and faced me.
“When I first saw you I thought you were a hippie.” He looked at me again, wondering if maybe he wasn’t right the first time. “But you’re not, you’re a professional man. You work for a living and you’ve got a good reason to see that monument. So I’ll meet you by the gate.”
As I got back on the bike I looked at myself in the rear view mirror. I had been on the road for three days with the same clothes. They were dusty and smelly. My old jeans stood on top of scuffed motorcycle boots. I had a denim vest over a long-sleeve cotton T-shirt, which was darker than the day I had started out. My beard was a lot fuller than I normally ever wear it. Sunglasses and bandanna protected my eyes and balding head. I had to dredge up 30 years of memory to bring the concept of hippie back into focus, but I could see his point. He obviously did not have the trusting nature of Mrs. Heathman, but then again, he was a Texan!
I parked the bike and jumped into the pickup truck. We followed the serpentine road back through that strange land, which looked flat but rolled and curved deceptively. We were in the middle of what they called the Flint Hills. The rugged pickup splashed through creeks and bounced through ruts. We went pretty far back. It would have been a tough, long walk. I now understood Mrs. Heathman’s concern. But suddenly we were there, jostling to a stop.
The site was low and flat and in the middle was the stone obelisk. It was surrounded by a wooden railing. The stone stood nine or so feet tall with eight names chiseled on one side. All of these had died in the crash. At the base was a wreath. The flowers could not have been more than a few days old. The place felt hot, empty, and surreal under a cloudless sky with a burning sun now at eye level.
His voice broke the still moment. “They just sneak back here. You can see where they chipped little pieces of it. Look at the middle of the Os and the As. It’s a shame.”
I was both dismayed that anyone would harm the monument but somehow gratified that people wanted a piece of it for themselves. I walked full circle around the railing and stepped back to take a couple of pictures. I felt reluctant to consume any more of my host’s time. I thanked him and we moved back toward the pickup. As we headed toward the highway, I asked if he understood the significance of what had happened here and how he felt about having the monument in the middle of his ranch. He said he knew Rockne was a famous football coach but that was really about it.
I told him a little bit of the history. I recounted the use of the forward pass against Army in 1913 when Rockne was a player and described the great teams he coached in the 1920s up to the time of his death in 1931. What happened in this field was heard all over the country. Rockne was one of the most widely recognized personalities of his time; the entire nation grieved at his death.
The Texan listened carefully. He wondered if there wasn’t some way to move the monument or construct a facsimile at the side of the road so people wouldn’t have to trespass on his land. I couldn’t blame him. There was no telling how many uninvited disciples in addition to myself made the pilgrimage to this spot. I felt a special gratitude for his hospitality.
Back by the road we got out of the pickup. His posture and voice had relaxed considerably since our initial encounter. He stood by the motorcycle and admired it as I drew on my fingerless leather gloves.
“Where are you headed now?” he asked.
“West. Way west. I want to ride through the Rockies.”
“Well you got some daylight left and this here is pretty country, too.”
He suggested some nice state roads that would give me a better sense of the land. I liked the idea. I thanked him again and wished him well. The Harley thundered back to life and my last glimpse of him was in my rearview mirror as I headed back toward Cottonwood Falls. I went by Mrs. Heathman’s house and waved.
The Texan was right about the roads. There were ranches and small towns. There were Norman Rockwell scenes of children playing in yards and riding their horses along the road. Mothers hung laundry outside and fathers on tractors worked the land.
I stopped at a small intersection with a grocery store named Casey’s to pick up a bottle of soda. As I pulled out of the gravel parking lot, a rusted pickup truck veered in front of me. The soda bottle was in my brake hand and as I lurched for the handle the bike toppled over. All 600 pounds of the bike rested on my right leg. Fortunately the driver jumped out and lifted the bike just enough to allow me to extricate myself. My jeans were a bit torn and my boot was scorched from the hot exhaust pipe, but I was okay. I thanked the pickup driver and got back on the bike. While riding away from my embarrassment, a silly, macabre smile came across my face as I realized that Rockne and I had both crashed in Kansas.
The remainder of the trip was uneventful but memorable. Riding through the Rockies did wonders for my head, and I returned home with one of the most relaxed feelings I can ever recall. On the evening before returning to work I decided to call Mrs. Heathman and thank her.
I called the Cottonwood Falls information and got the Heathman phone number. She answered in her cheerful friendly tone.
“Mrs. Heathman this is the guy on the motorcycle from a couple weeks ago.”
“I remember,” she responded.
“I just wanted to let you know that after I left you I ran into the Texan. He turned out to be a very nice man and he took me back to the Rockne Memorial.”
“I know,” she said. “We were talking about you after church on Sunday. There is not much that goes on here that folks don’t notice and gossip about. I’m just sorry that you missed Easter. Easter felt real bad that he didn’t get to take you there himself. Would you like to talk to him now?”
“Is he there? I’d love to!”
“Just a second then, I’ll get him.”
In just a few moments his friendly voice greeted me.
“Well it’s nice to finally meet you,” he said. “Sorry I missed you when you passed through.”
“I’m sorry I missed you too, but hopefully on my next trip I’ll get to meet you.”
“You better hurry up because I’m not getting any younger! I’ll be 74, you know.”
Seventy-four years didn’t seem that old in Fort Lauderdale, but maybe it was in rural Kansas. Before I could respond he continued.
“I was 13 years old the date it happened, and I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“So did you see the plane go down? You actually saw it crash?”
“No, no, I got there right after. You see, we had just gotten back from running some chores. My dad had just got a new Chevy pickup truck and it was a beauty. But we had just come home and they sent me back out to the barn to fetch something. I was the youngest, you know. When I was heading back to the house I heard loud engines revving in the distance. I thought they were car engines. Fellas used to race their cars on the highway there.”
“Was that the same place you’re living now?”
“No, no. Do you know where the railway tracks cross the road? I lived just a little bit south of those tracks. That’s where I grew up.”
“So you heard those engines revving and you thought it was a car race?” I said, anxiously getting back to the story.
“Yeah. Yeah and I ran into the house and got my brothers and we all went out to the road to watch the race. By the time we get back out there we didn’t hear anything. We waited for a while but no cars came by and I didn’t hear those engines again. My brothers thought I was just tricking them so they put snow down my back and ran into the house. Right after we got in, the phone rang and it was my uncle. He told us a plane had gone down and we better get up there to see if we could help. We got our coats and ran back out in dad’s pickup truck and came up to the site of the crash.”
“Is the memorial at the exact site of the crash? Is that where you remember it?” I felt like a detective, validating details.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s the exact spot.”
“What did you do when you got there?”
“Well the ambulances were arriving but there wasn’t anything they could do. The passengers were all dead. There were a few bodies scattered about and I just helped wherever I could. I remember a real strong smell of oil everywhere, but the funny thing was there was no fire and no blood. I remember seeing cuts in the bodies, on arms, legs, and all you could see was the fat underneath. At least I think it was fat. It was kind of like when you skin an animal and it’s the fat under the skin. But there was no blood. Does that make any sense?”
“Yes. Yes, I understand.” I was interested in the forensics but didn’t want my curiosity to seem morbid.
“Of course we didn’t know who those people were, not until the next day anyway. But I always remember putting one fella on a stretcher. He had long black rubber bandages around his legs. They were wrapped around his legs but had become unraveled. They were hanging down on the ground, so I remember running over and taking the end of the bandage and stuffing it back up his pant leg so the ambulance driver wouldn’t step on it and trip. I remember reading that Rockne had phlebitis and he used to wear those kinds of rubber bandages around his legs, so I figured that was him. I didn’t know it at the time, though.
“We worked for a while and got the bodies gathered up. The hardest were the pilots. That was a mess. You couldn’t separate them from the engine. You know it was on one of those Fokker trimotors with one engine in the front and an engine on each wing. It must have been coming in nose first and of course the pilots are sitting right behind that engine in the front and the impact drove them into it. The others were thrown free.
“We took a break for lunch and when we came back all I remember is that oil. I smelled that oil and I just couldn’t go back there. It made me a little sick, you know, so I asked my dad if it was okay to go on home and he said that was fine. Next day in the papers of course we found out that Rockne was on that plane and it seemed like everyone everywhere was talking about it.
“There were a lot of newspaper articles and I have saved quite a few of them over the years. As I understand, this was the first crash of a scheduled commercial airline flight in history. The folks from Washington investigated it. They decided that the wings of the airplane broke. The wings were made out of wood on those old Fokker trimotors. I guess they never made another airplane like that again. The folks from Washington also recommended that they form a special department to inspect airplanes and investigate air accidents. Apparently the formation of the FAA was a direct consequence of Rockne’s crash. If you’re interested I could send you some of these articles.”
“Yes! Yes, I would be very interested.”
“Sure, I’ll get them in the mail to you this week.”
“Mr. Heathman, I feel like I’ve relived a special moment in history with you.”
“Yeah, well it’s something I’ll never forget. You know they go out there and have a ceremony every March 31st.”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, a few of them gather there and say a few prayers. One year not too long ago even Rockne’s daughter came. She said she didn’t ever think she would want to see the place but after many years it seemed like a good idea.”
“Well, I’ll have to get out there one of these years.”
“Yeah, well like I said, don’t wait too long because I’m not gettin’ any younger.”
We both chuckled. I thanked him again and we said goodbye. As I hung up the phone I was a bit overwhelmed. Rockne had been a hero to me since I was a little boy. But he had always seemed to have lived so long ago. Now I had just spoken to a man who had picked him up off the ground on that fateful day. Suddenly history didn’t seem so far away.
Time has rolled on and one workday blends into the next. When stress and fatigue cause my mind to wander, I think about that trip. I think about the Heathmans and the Texan. I can look at my old Harley-Davidson Road Atlas and the pages come alive with memories. I still have the motorcycle but take it on much shorter rides. Maybe the midlife crisis has passed, but I just noticed that in the new edition of the atlas the little red dot in Kansas has disappeared and I may have to find out why.
At the time of this article’s original publication, Dr. Joseph Casey was a surgeon based in Fort Lauderdale.