Heathman, witness to Rockne's death in 1931 plane crash, dies at 90

Updated: January 31, 2008, 1:29 AM ET
Associated Press

James Easter Heathman, the teenager who raced to a field near his family's central Kansas farm to find the plane crash that killed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, has died. He was 90.

Heathman died Tuesday at an Emporia, Kan., hospital, where he had been for about a week after contracting pneumonia, said his son, Tom Heathman.

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Easter Heathman didn't just witness the plane crash that killed Knute Rockne. He became a member of the Notre Dame family, Wayne Drehs writes. Story

Tom Heathman said Wednesday his father had been taking people to the crash site, located on private land near the Heathman farm, for about 20 years. He said his father gave the free tours because he wanted to honor Rockne, who at 43 was at the height of his career at the time of the March 1931 crash.

Rockne led the Fighting Irish to consecutive undefeated records his final two seasons. His death, which President Herbert Hoover called "a national loss," made front-page news across the country.

"Easter was a wonderful man whose lifelong dedication to honoring the memory of Knute Rockne will forever be appreciated by Notre Dame," school spokesman Dennis Brown said.

Tom Heathman said his father, who was about a week shy of his 14th birthday when the plane crashed, heard the noise of the plane overhead and thought it was cars racing down the road.

"But then the operator rang shortly after that" and told them it appeared a plane had crashed, Tom Heathman said. "He got in an old Model T with his dad and a couple of his brothers and drove up there."

When they arrived, they saw the plane's tail section sticking up out of the ground, and the engines driven into the ground.

"There were five bodies flung out onto the ground. The two pilots were still inside," Tom Heathman said. "They stayed until the undertaker came, and they helped load the bodies."

Heathman said his father was shaken up after finding the bodies and didn't want to return to the site later that day with the rest of his family.

"He was young," Tom Heathman said. "And for a young person it was quite a shock. It was pretty traumatic for him."

The elder Heathman didn't talk about the crash much with his children until the last two decades, his son said. The family attributed some of the increased attention to the Internet.

"I've heard a lot about that day in the last 20 years," said Tom Heathman. "That's when people started showing up and looking for the memorial, and the owner of the land had given dad permission to go up there."

Many of the visitors to the crash site monument have been Notre Dame alumni. Easter Heathman had been to Notre Dame for a handful of football games and to tell his story to a gathering of university alumni. He also met Rockne family members, his son said.

Easter Heathman's daughter, Sue Ann Brown, said several of the alumni visitors kept in touch with her father over the years.

"One sent him a box of chocolate-covered pretzels the day he was moved into the nursing home in December," Brown said.

"He had his immediate family, and he had his Notre Dame family. He loved them. That was one of the things he said on the last day he was talking: 'They're a great bunch of people.' It brought a tear to his eye."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press