No such thing as closure

Author: Jody Gormley '77

In 1973, when the women’s crew started as part of the Notre Dame Rowing Club, there were very few other women’s crews, so it was challenging to find races. The team in the spring of 1974 consisted of 16 or 17 rowers and two coxswains. We had only three races that spring during the school year: one at Princeton, one at home against Nebraska and the Midwest Sprints in Madison. At the Sprints we raced a lightweight eight and a heavyweight/open eight. The light eight won the race , which was considered the Midwest Championships. The heavyweight crew, which had two lightweights, including me, in the boat did not fare as well. We had had only three races after training through the winter and rowing five or six days a week for training.

Our coach, Clete, loved to race and wanted us to be able to do more of it, so he looked around and somehow heard about a race in Wichita the weekend of graduation. Most of the team members were freshman (I was among that group) with a few sophomores and juniors. Clete asked for volunteers since it was after finals and meant staying around, training longer and delaying a return home for the summer. Five of us volunteered to race, and we agreed to enter a four in the event. Since I was the smallest I was tapped to be the coxswain rather than rowing, which meant resuming a strict diet to be as light as possible. The rowing club did not own a four but some of the men who were still around for graduation rowed with us so we could continue train in an eight.

We left South Bend in a rented Chevy Impala late on May 16 to drive to Wichita. I don’t recall why we left late in the day. I think Clete had ROTC training he had to complete that day. We stopped in Springfield, Illinois, at the home of Mary Gumble. I think we had something to eat there, but what I most remember is sitting in the kitchen while Mary and Boni Burton played their guitars and sang harmony on the song “Peaches,” or at least I think that is the title, a John Denver song maybe. It was sweet and soothing. Then we got back on the road. We switched off drivers through the night, planning on getting to Wichita to practice once before the race the following day.

By late morning on May 17 we were in Kansas near Emporia. Beth Corbin was driving, and seated next to her was Clete and then Boni. I sat behind the driver and in the middle was Mary and next to her Beth Storey. In my memory it is a sunny day. I had a present from some teammates sitting behind me in the back window. It was a treat that I was going to be able to eat after the race, my favorite candy, licorice. They had used the Sunday comics as the wrapping paper.

I had just drifted off to sleep when I was jarred wide awake by the impact — a bang and the car was spinning. I was flying forward. In that brief moment I knew we had hit something and I thought to myself, “I might die.” I don’t know if I lost consciousness at all, but the car stopped moving and I was aware that it was still. I pulled myself up and sat back and realized I had been on top of Mary. I helped pull her back onto the seat and saw Beth Storey beneath her, slumped forward. I started to help her sit back but she did not move. My head started spinning and I thought I would vomit, so I rested my head back. Then there were people at the car, opening the doors to help us. I heard someone moan. I could not find my glasses. I looked down, saw Beth Storey’s glasses and put them on so I could see a little better. It felt a little odd doing that, but I needed to see. The front bench seat was collapsed forward into a “V” pinning Clete against the dashboard. Boni was slumped against the dash as well, and Beth Corbin was pressed against the steering wheel. Someone helped me out of the car and I stood up with help, but had to limp because of the pain in my right leg. I was helped to the ground and was soon joined by Mary and Beth Corbin.

I looked around and saw a semitrailer and several cars parked on both sides of the interstate, people around us helping. Someone came over to the three of us, knelt down and prayed for us. An ambulance came and I was told that others were hurt worse and there would be another ambulance soon. I was in crisis mode, trying to figure out who was hurt and what we needed to do. “Just stay calm,” I thought. In the second ambulance I think there were three of us: Mary, Boni and me. I am sure it was Boni — I thought she was unconscious. The EMT asked me my name and where I was from. I also told him Boni’s name and asked if she was OK and received what I later realized was a vague answer.

I was processed through the ER and then moved to a bed in a room with an elderly woman. At some point a doctor came in a told me I had a broken fibula but that it was not a complete fracture. I wouldn’t need a cast if I used crutches and didn’t put any weight on it for six weeks. If I did prefer a cast, it would have to be a full leg cast because the fracture was near my knee. I asked the nurses how everyone else was but again received a noncommittal answer. I was lying there with my leg and head hurting, unable to see clearly, feeling pretty awful, and then I heard a scream of anguish and crying that I was pretty sure was from Beth Corbin or Mary — I knew someone had died. Shortly after, a nurse came in and told me that Boni and Beth Storey had both passed away. I was shocked about Boni — she had been in the second ambulance with me, not the group that was hurt seriously. What I didn’t know was that she had died on impact. I realized I had taken Beth Storey’s glasses as she was dying. I was numb.

I was told Clete was in a coma. By the next morning he was doing better but still unconscious, I think, because I didn’t see him before I left the hospital. At some point the next morning, I was taken to Beth Corbin and Marys’ room. I received a call from my father, who needed to know I was okay and told me he’d arrange to get me home. I believe the university called my home and talked with my mother, who then called my father.

At first I didn’t want to take anything for the pain but found I couldn’t sleep and finally asked for something. In the morning a nurse brought in my comic page-wrapped present that had been in the back window in the car. When it was brought to the room I started to unwrap it (I did not yet know what was inside) and saw blood smeared on the comic strip wrapping. I set it aside. I don’t think I ate any of the licorice. I know that at some point I cried, but I felt so numb I don’t recall crying a lot. Years later, I was able to shed many more tears about the events, but not so much then.

Dr. Emil Hoffman called me at the hospital, probably the following morning. I don’t remember much about the conversation other than him telling me I had done well on the chemistry final and would get a B in the class. I never thanked him for this gesture of compassion until I saw him at my 35th class reunion.

There was an ND alumnus and his wife who had planned to host us when we got to Wichita. I unfortunately do not recall their names. They drove up to Emporia on May 18 to help out and get me to the airport. I had flight arrangements to leave Wichita and fly home to Indianapolis via Kansas City. My father had made the arrangements and my Uncle Jim was to meet me in Kansas City to help me change planes. Unfortunately, I was delayed because I needed to give a statement about the accident to the state police, and I missed the flight from Wichita. The ND alumnus and his wife were kind enough to drive me to Kansas City to catch the flight to Indianapolis. I was fairly helpless without my glasses and with a broken leg. I was transported through the airport by wheelchair, and Uncle Jim and his family met up with me at the gate. I didn’t realize that I looked pretty beat up because I didn’t look in the mirror until I got home to Indianapolis. The visible wounds were superficial and healed within a week.

My leg ached for several weeks but I obeyed doctor’s orders and used the crutches. I watched my right leg that had been so strong after months of rowing atrophy to almost half the size of the left. Once I was given permission to bear weight six weeks later, the leg ached again after just walking. I tried running but could only make it a block at first. These were the obvious wounds. The deeper wound healed slowly. I was “down in the dumps” most of the summer, but I didn’t really recognize it. I was so sad and haunted by the memory of Boni lying in the ambulance, looking peaceful and healthy, but already dead. I had one breakdown while riding in the car with my sister on the interstate on the way to work, we hit a pothole just as a semitrailer truck merged into the lane next to us. The truck and the sudden jolt of the car tapped into that feeling I had when I was jarred awake as the car was spinning on the highway in Kansas a few weeks earlier. I started crying hysterically for a few minutes. That was it as far as emotional breakdown. I spent a lot of time listening to music when I wasn’t working, hung out with high school friends and as the summer wore on life felt mostly normal again.

When we returned to school my friends treaded rather gently around the subject. I don’t recall talking much to anyone about it. I did not go to the opening Mass but found out after the fact that Boni and Beth were mentioned. Much later I learned that there was also a Mass at BP Hall for them, but I don’t remember knowing about it at the time. The previous year I had lived in BP as had Boni, Mary Gumble and Beth Corbin but had moved to Lyons. The Rowing Club also had a memorial Mass at the beginning of the year. I think I was still numb and I just don’t remember much about those early events.

I did feel that I needed to work much harder at rowing that year to somehow compensate for the loss of Beth and Boni. I used it as motivation. When I was tired and wanting to slack off in practice I’d think of them and used that to push myself a little harder. That fall, the women’s crew entered the Head of the Charles. Clete Graham was again our coach. Beth Corbin , Mary Gumble and I were rowing with the rest of our teammates again and that felt right. The club had two un-named wooden Pocock eight oared shells and that fall the boats were christened, one the Boni Burton and the other the Elizabeth Storey. Those two boats were used by both the men’s and the women’s teams for many years afterward.

I continued to row through my senior year, and then stayed in South Bend for two more years to coach the women’s crew. During one of those years when I was coaching the team decided to make a trip to Kansas to row in Wichita. I kept my anxiety about making that trip under wraps, but as we drove through Kansas and neared Emporia I was watchful, not for semitrailers and not with concern about another accident, but for white crosses painted on the asphalt of the shoulder along the highway. I did see two crosses that I was fairly certain were the markers of the accident and said a prayer and “goodbye,” but it did not bring the closure I had hoped for. My father recently said, “Closure! There is no such thing as closure.” I think I agree with him. There is pain that we are rarely conscious of but which lingers and becomes part of us, woven into the fabric of who we are and who we become over our lifetime. It lessens as the fabric grows and changes.

I have been grateful that Patti Klepper pushed to have Boni and Beth counted as alumni of the Notre Dame class of 1977 so that they are remembered at our class Mass at the reunions. (Beth Storey, I think, was a member of the class of 1975, but Patti more or less asked to adopt her into our class.)

I don’t recall anyone from the ND administration reaching out to me the fall when we returned to campus after the accident. Being back with the crew members who had known Boni and Beth, especially Beth Corbin, Mary and Clete helped, but it wasn’t something we talked about. I’m sure I would have benefited from some counseling but likely I would have been resistant. Hard to know.