Sept. 24, 2006
By Bernie Kish and Sue Ann Brown
On March 31, 1931, thirteen-year old Easter Heathman was shelling corn in the kitchen with two of his five brothers. Easter went out to the barn to get another sack of corn, and heard what he believed to be cars racing up the dirt road (now US Highway 177 in the Flint Hills of Kansas). He ran into the house to tell his brothers about the cars racing, and then there was silence. His brothers didn’t believe him. Shortly afterwards, the phone rang. It was his uncle telling them of an airplane crash in a nearby pasture. The three Heathman boys then accompanied their Dad to the tragic crash scene. Eight people – two pilots and six passengers – were dead. Young Easter noticed there was a bandage dragging the ground from the leg of one of the bodies being carried on a stretcher. Easter picked up the bandage and placed it on the stretcher. Little did he realize that over 75 years later, his name would be linked forever with the man with the bandage on his leg – Knute K. Rockne.
Within two weeks after the crash, the Chase County Leader News reported that a Rockne Memorial Corporation had been formed to raise funds for the erection of a memorial. A small flint rock was initially placed at the crash site. Four years later, in 1935, the current stone memorial, listing the names of Rockne and the other seven men, was erected.
In those first years following the crash, Easter Heathman began what would be a long and remarkable life. He continued to help with the family farm and enlisted in the Kansas National Guard. He fondly recalls his family’s love of music brightening up the Depression years. The Heathman’s hosted platform dances for friends and neighbors from Bazaar and Matfield Green near their modest home and his Dad’s gas station.
In 1938, Easter married Elaine Selves. They had three children, Gordon, Sue Ann, and Tom. All now live near him with their families. During the early years of World War II, he worked for Boeing Aircraft in Wichita, installing engines in B-29 bombers. In 1944, he enlisted in the US Army and served in the Philippines and Korea, earning four medals.
In 1948, following his return from the service, Easter began his lifelong involvement in agriculture in Chase County, eventually farming 500 – 600 acres. Gordon and Tom also became farmers. Gordon is on the Chase County Museum Board, and is currently promoting and raising funds to build a Rockne Memorial Museum in Cottonwood Falls.
In the early 1980’s, visitors began journeying to Chase County in search of the crash site. In 1991, Easter and his friends, Doug Stedrey and Pat Donelson, organized the 60th Year Anniversary Memorial Ceremony of the Rockne plane crash. This ceremony, with coverage by local television stations and print media, sparked even more visitor interest in the place Rockne died. Since 1993, when Easter began keeping a visitors log, nearly 800 people from across America, Germany, Spain, and Canada have signed his book.
This past March 31st, Easter’s daughter Sue Ann Brown, along with Ken Kline from the Wichita Rockne Club, and Notre Dame Alumni, Pat Reis and Pat Smith, organized the 75th Anniversary Rockne Memorial. Over 200 people attended with coverage by national and local media. The Notre Dame Athletic Department presented Easter with a beautiful plaque in appreciation for his dedication to preserving Knute Rockne’s memory.
Now in the twilight years of his time on earth, Easter Heathman continues to help people and enjoy life. He is a water-well witcher, having witched seven wells in northeast Kansas this summer.
With his favorite companion, a dog named Daisy, he tends to his 30 tomato plants and 20 fruit trees. He loves to watch Notre Dame football games on television, occasionally wets a line at one of the local fishing holes, sits on his deck watching birds and enjoys going to the Hitchin’ Post Restaurant in Matfield Green for hamburgers and chicken strips. His greatest joy, however, comes from taking new friends from all over America to the pasture in the Flint Hills near his house and telling them the story of the day that college football’s most famous coach died in an airplane crash. Notre Dame. Knute Rockne. Easter Heathman. Together again. Together forever.