There were six in the car. They were headed to the Wichita River Festival. Five members of women’s crew and their coach. Near Emporia, Kansas. Friday, May 17, 1974. They were to row the following day.
Exams were over, the school year done. Commencement was that weekend. Women’s crew was in its infancy. They were traveling by rental car, a Chevy Impala. This would be the fourth and final event that spring.
It was about 1 in the afternoon. They were maybe 65 miles from their destination — on I-35 about 25 miles southwest of Emporia — when a “piggyback” semi merged into their westbound lane. Strong, gusting winds blew the truck’s empty trailer into the car.
Beth Corbin was driving. She was 18 and from Port Huron, Michigan. Next to her was the team’s coach, Frank “Clete” Graham, 21, from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Next to him was Boni Burton, 19, from Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Across the backseat were Joanne “Jody” Gormley, a 19-year-old from Indianapolis, Mary Gumble, 19, of Springfield, Illinois, and Elizabeth Storey. Storey was 21. She was from South Bend. Her father, William Storey, was on the theology faculty at Notre Dame and is now an emeritus professor.
They had stopped at Mary’s house. Jody remembers being in the kitchen while Mary and Boni played guitar and sang harmonies — maybe John Denver songs. Then they were on their way again.
Boni was killed in the accident. She died at the scene. Beth Storey died at the hospital.
Clete Graham had severe head injuries, was hospitalized and unconscious. But he fully recovered a month or two later.
Mary Gumble had a broken leg but survived this tragedy to graduate in 1977 and marry Ronald Levy, only to die of brain cancer in January 1997.
Six were in the car; three remain.
I didn’t know any of this until this past March when I received an email from Patty Klepper ’77. It’s the 40th anniversary of co-education, she wrote. It’d be a good time “to commemorate the 2 ND female student-athletes who died en route to a rowing event in May 1974.” I thought of the swim team’s fatal bus accident and other students who had died in car accidents through the years. But I couldn’t remember this accident, these fatalities. No one else at the magazine could either.
Her email continued: “The accident was announced at the Baccalaureate Mass, which instantly became very somber, instead of the usual jubilation.” 1974. That was my graduation year, my Baccalaureate Mass. But only gauzy thoughts played along the edges of my memory; I tried but couldn’t say for sure I could remember any of this.
Tell me more, I replied. So Patty wrote what she knew, as did the others, and Archives provided a copy of the May 18 South Bend Tribune article.
So I was able to patch together the facts provided here. And I learned from Jody Gormley ’77, now a doctor, that alumnae from the early years of women’s crew are currently training to row together again at the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston in October as Senior Masters. Even though scattered across the country, the rowers will gather in Seattle this July and in South Bend in August to prepare for the race.
I said the magazine would try to find room to acknowledge all this — if not in print, then probably at the website. Toward this end, I asked those who were riding in that car to write what they remembered of the accident.
That’s when it all changed. That’s when the events that occurred so long ago became so vivid, so palpably real.
The gold hoop earrings. The licorice. Beth Storey’s glasses. The phone call from Emil Hofman. Boni’s blonde hair and blue eyes. Boni’s poem. The moment of impact, of coming to, in the car, at the hospital. The pieces of life and death that floated in and out of consciousness, in and out of memory.
The narratives are powerful in their honesty and simplicity. They speak from the immediacy of isolated moments yet carry the universal pains that bind us all — whether in Boston; Moore, Oklahoma; or Newtown, Connecticut. They help us remember the lingering impact of a receding tragedy.
You can read them at magazine.nd.edu.