By Kathy Feist
In the final scene of the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne: All American,” the legendary Notre Dame football coach boards a plane leaving Kansas City for Los Angeles. “Goodbye, Doc,” he says, as he shakes hands with his old college buddy.
“That man–the one he says good-bye to–was my uncle,” proudly claims south Kansas City resident Ann O’Hare.
D.M. “Doc” Nigro would see his friend again that fateful day on March 31, 1931, when he drove 140 miles west to collect his body. Rockne and seven other passengers aboard the plane died in a crash in the Flint Hills near Bazaar, Kansas.
Every year around March 31, Nigro would make that same trek, but usually accompanied by Notre Dame alumni and acquaintances. He led efforts to erect a monument at the crash site and later a memorial marker at a rest stop along I-35.
Like her uncle, O’Hare has made the annual pilgrimage west (the commemorations are now held every five years as of 1991) to pay homage at the crash site. This year, due to advancing age, O’Hare fears a planned April 3 commemoration may be her last.
In actuality, it is probably the last for many. A new landowner no longer allows visitors on the property to view the memorial. This year, the April 3 commemoration will be held at 10 a.m. at Chase County Historical Museum in Cottonwood Falls where memorabilia, videos, speakers and relatives are planned.
That Fateful Day
Nigro and Rockne had become fast friends while attending the University of Notre Dame (1911-14). Both would go on to have distinguished careers. Rockne became the most winning football coach in college history with a record of a .881 overall winning percentage for Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish (1918-31). Nigro had become commissioner of child hygiene and communicable disease for the Kansas City Health Department and went on to have a highly esteemed and strong presence in the city.
Over the course of their friendship, Nigro convinced Rockne and his wife Bonnie to board their two sons in Kansas City’s prestigious Pembroke Country Day School.
On March 31, 1931, the boys were scheduled to arrive at Union Station in the morning after a family vacation in Florida. Having already cut his vacation short to return to work in South Bend, Indiana, Rockne decided to take an overnight train trip to Kansas City to meet up with his sons at the station. From there he would fly to Los Angeles for a speaking engagement.
When Rockne arrived at Union Station, Nigro was there to treat him to breakfast. They waited together for the boys, but their train was delayed and did not arrive in time. Disappointed, Rockne got into Nigro’s car and drove through the cold and drizzly weather to Kansas City’s municipal airport.
After saying goodbye, Rockne boarded TWA Flight 599 along with seven other passengers: Waldo B. Miller; H.J. Christen; John Happer; Spencer Goldthwaite; G.A. Robrecht; pilot Robert Fry and co-pilot Herman J. Mathias.
The Fokker F10 trimotor plane left Kansas City at 9:15 a.m. As it approached the Flint Hills, the pilots reported bad weather to radio control in Wichita. At 10:20, fighting thick low clouds, sleet and snow above Cassoday (about an hour north of Wichita), the pilots decided to return to Kansas City. That choice was just as treacherous. Told the weather was satisfactory in Wichita, the pilots then chose to get back on course. Witnesses from below described how as the plane circled, its wooden wing broke from the plane and fell to the ground. A half-mile later, the plane itself tumbled to the ground, crashing near Bazaar, Ks. No one survived.
One of the first to arrive at the site was 13-year-old Easter Heathman. According to an interview with Heathman, who eventually became the site’s tour guide and caretaker, there was amazingly no fire despite the smell of gasoline surrounding the site. There was also no blood spilled.
Rockne’s mangled body was found near the plane with a rosary wrapped around his fingers.
As the news of the 43-year-old football legend’s death got out, the nation was in shock. President Herbert Hoover called it “a national loss.”
On April 1, Nigro returned on a train with the body to South Bend, where an estimated 10,000 people stood in wait. Thousands attended Rockne’s funeral inside and outside Sacred Heart Church on the university’s campus. Thousands, if not millions, listened as CBS broadcast the funeral live to all 79 of its affiliates, the first of its kind.
When he returned to Kansas City, Nigro founded the Rockne Club of America which held annual dinners near Rockne’s birthday on March 4. The dinners, always held at swanky hotels in Kansas City, attracted sports figures from around the country. Awards were handed out to local athletes.
He also founded the Knute Rockne Memorial Society of Kansas which organizes the commemorations.
By 1935, his efforts to erect a granite memorial at the crash site materialized. Thirty years later, he was able to get a Kansas memorial marker along I-35 at the Matfield Green rest area between Emporia and El Dorado.
In 1975, Nigro passed away, leaving behind an illustrious career of his own while also ensuring that his extraordinary friend would not be forgotten.
The 90th Anniversary Commemoration
The 90th Anniversary Commemorative Event will be held on Saturday, April 3 at 10 a.m. in the Chase County Historical Museum in Cottonwood Falls. The event is available remotely by clicking on the following Zoom link: https://kansas.zoom.us/j/97887951336—Meeting ID: 978 8795 1336—Passcode: 570525. The program will include remarks by Notre Dame graduate Jerry McKenna, a world-renowned sculptor who has created 11 Rockne sculptures and busts; Rockne’s grandsons Nils Rockne and Knute Rockne III; Notre Dame All-American football player Reggie Brooks, and Blair Kerkhoff, Hall of Fame sportswriter with the Kansas City Star.
Father Matt Nagle of Emporia State University and Father Paul Doyle of the University of Notre Dame will offer prayers at the event.
The late Easter Heathman, the man who took care of the Rockne Monument Site for 34 years and escorted more than 800 visitors to the site, will be honored with a video tribute.