HUNTINGTON - A change of plans will keep Katherine O'Connor Beiter from being in Huntington on Saturday during the 45th annual memorial service to remember the 75 victims of the 1970 Marshall University plane crash.
Katherine will still have a presence. A vase of nine white roses - representing herself, her two children and six grandchildren - will quietly be placed at the fountain as family members, Thundering Herd fans, community members and Marshall students, staff and faculty turn their hearts and minds to the memorial service that takes place each Nov. 14 at the Memorial Student Center.
The ceremony honors team members, coaches, athletic officials, fans, flight crew members and one college administrator, her husband, Dr. Brian R. O'Connor, who died when the chartered Southern Airways jet crashed just short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova on that rainy Saturday evening. The crash remains the worst sports-related air disaster in U.S. history.
Katherine's husband was dean of admissions at Marshall. In an instant, Katherine, then 30, became a widow and single parent of two young children. Now 75, she lives in the Rochester, New York, area, and on Saturday she will be at a two-day retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, which is 35 miles south of Rochester. She will settle down for an Irish dinner with her daughter Ruth Ann (who married a "Brian" and whose youngest child is a "Brian") and her family. She'll talk with son David by phone since he lives in Texas with his wife Francine. Their three children are either in or out of college with two being international affairs majors. Stephanie is teaching English in South Korea.
Then comes the quiet time, looking at photos and remembering the wonderful 10 years she and Brian had together.
"It makes my heart sad that David and Ruth Ann grew up without their father, yet for me it's a time to celebrate life," Katherine said Sunday night in a telephone interview from her home. "Nov. 14 is easier to get past now; it's not a day I dread. I love being with family and planning something special each year."
Coping with grief
Katherine has done something one might consider therapeutic even though she's 45 years removed from the shock of her life. She has written a chapbook called "He Makes All Things Beautiful - Reflections of a Marshall Football Plane Crash Survivor."
It's a collection of stories written over a period of 36 years detailing how she, her children and family came back from the despair felt on Nov. 14, 1970. The book is available at the Marshall Bookstore and Archer's Flowers.
Proceeds go to the Brian R. O'Connor Memorial Scholarship Fund.
The theme for her was first finding God and putting her faith in him.
Unlike today, she says, there were no grief counselors to help one work through a tragic moment. Bouts of anxiety and depression haunted her in the months after the crash. Thanks to friends and scripture, a recurring theme for her, Katherine turned her life over to God in a chapel service.
Peace and hope began to replace despair. Thanks to that faith which she says grows each day, Katherine worked through severe depression after the crash, the loss of her twin sister Kathleen to breast cancer, her own cancer and surgery, and the loss of her second husband, George, after 14 years of marriage.
After years of feeling distant from her mother, Ann, they formed a bond late in life thanks to a moving phone conversation.
That faith encouraged Katherine to share with others around New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even West Virginia that God is faithful to see people through the trials and tribulations of life.
Even though her speaking ministry and later her career in hospice would take her away from the children for hours and days, Katherine was always mindful of what they had lost, David at the age of 6 and Ruth Ann at the age of 4.
The morning after the crash, they asked their mommy some tough questions. Weeks and months would pass with grandparents and aunts and uncles being there for these little ones in special ways.
Faith and purpose
As a family they found themselves connecting with a spiritual community in Utica, then New Hartford, then Amherst, all in New York. Each place gave the young ones an opportunity for teen Bible studies at their home, for Christian camps, for youth programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters and other special times.
Soon they were off to college, with David giving nearly 25 years to Mercy Ships Ministry where he met his wife.
Ruth Ann completed college and also got involved in mission programs all over the world. She settled down in the Rochester area - five minutes away from mom - where she met her husband.
Stepping back to 1973, Katherine had relocated to Utica. After attending a Christian Women Conference, a club was started in the Mohawk Valley (where her mother lived) and she was invited to be the first guest speaker. The theme was finding a relationship with Jesus Christ and working past grief and despair. She gave numerous speeches on that subject from 1972-79. In 1975, she received a letter from the CWC chapter in West Virginia asking her to speak at four clubs - Parkersburg, Charleston, Gallipolis, Ohio, and Huntington. While in Huntington she was able to attend the 5th annual memorial service.
"I still don't know how they found out about me," Katherine said. "I wasn't reluctant. I felt it was a privilege to share with people who knew about the crash."
In 1975, Katherine returned to her career as a nurse, having graduated from Columbia University School of Nursing in 1963. Her first assignment as a visiting nurse was to dying patients because her supervisor felt she understood their needs. "It was frustrating," she said. "You see all the needs the patient and family have and you know you need a team."
Then Katherine discovered Hospice Care Utica where she worked, and then went on to graduate school at Syracuse University.
She often wondered if her passion for hospice care was related to all she had gone through in losing Brian and knowing what it meant to grieve. It must have as it prompted her to write her first book, "Comfort in Dying - Reflections of a Hospice Nurse." She shares the lessons she learned in the many years of working as a hospice nurse in upstate New York. Each chapter is based on a true story, showing how to say "goodbye" or "I love you." It is available on Amazon.com.
After graduating in 1980, Katherine moved to Amherst and became the Buffalo Hospice coordinator.
While in Buffalo, Katherine received a disturbing phone call from her twin sister who lived only an hour away in Chautauqua County. Kathleen, 40, was terminally ill with breast cancer. She would die two years later.
Katherine had to work on saying farewell to a dying relative who had done so much for her when Brian died. There was no hospice in Chautauqua County then. Katherine's last words to her sister were, "I love you."
"It was a difficult time." Katherine said. "Not because she was so young, but because we finally lived close together (one hour apart) after miles often separated us - Africa, Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. We had planned on fun times together, but those last two years were spent battling against her cancer."
After being a widow for 13 years, Katherine met R. George Beiter, a widower, at a Classical Music Lovers' Association meeting.
They hit it off and eventually were married, and Katherine became the stepmother of six and the step-grandmother of six. George was there for her as she faced her own cancer and surgery. After they moved from Buffalo to Chautauqua County, Katherine helped to establish a hospice there. George became a hospice volunteer and years later would become a hospice patient in Hospice Chautauqua County where his wife had been coordinator. Several years later she would say goodbye to Chautauqua County and move closer to her daughter in the Rochester area.
In addition to attending the 5th annual memorial service, Katherine has made three other trips to Huntington. The first was in 1995 for the 25th memorial service. Her son David and little 4-year-old Brian flew in from Texas. Her daughter Ruth Ann flew in with her mom. A single white rose was laid at the fountain in memory of Brian.
The second visit was in April 2006 for the fountain scene for the movie "We Are Marshall." Family members were invited to be a part of the movie by gathering around the fountain. The third and last visit was December 2006 for the movie's local premier.
"We didn't get to meet many family members at the 25th memorial," Katherine said. "The movie was different. So many receptions, formal and informal. Family members opened their hearts and homes to us. We had the opportunity to meet other family members who had suffered so much that night in 1970. My children met other children (all grown now) and got to hear so many stories. They learned so much."
Katherine attended the afternoon showing of the movie at the Keith-Albee Theater with nine other family members from New York, Texas and Kentucky. She did not attend the evening show, but instead had dinner with special friends from when she and Brian had lived here. At breakfast the next morning, David and his mom had a long talk. Grief and how long does it last was the topic.
"I told him 'I don't know,'" Katherine said. "Grief, some don't handle it so well. Families are broken. Our family wasn't broken. We weren't crippled by grief. We have become successful, productive people, people of faith. We work our way through grief one step at a time. Each step brings healing."
On Monday, Katherine had an extensive interview with the editor of the alumnae magazine at Wagner College where she did her undergraduate work. During the conversation, the word grief came up more than once as the editor asked Katherine how she would address those who have lost a loved one.
"Grief never ends ... but it changes," Katherine told the writer. "It's a passage, not a place to stay. I believe with my heart and soul that one can move on with good professional support and with God in their life."
The annual memorial service honoring the 75 victims of the 1970 Marshall plane crash is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, on the Memorial Student Center plaza, where the Memorial Fountain stands.
More on the crash
A site at www.herald-dispatch.com titled "1970 Marshall Plane Crash: The Real Story" is full of information:
n original game stories and rosters of the 1970 and '71 teams
n photo galleries of the teams, Fairfield Stadium and more
n biographical information about the victims
n stories about Jack Lengyel, Nate Ruffin and Red Dawson
n a history of Marshall football
n coverage of the filming of the movie
n a guestbook for visitors to share their thoughts and memories about the teams
To access the site, go to www.herald-dispatch.com. Hover your mouse on Sports, then click Marshall Plane Crash.