Published Nov. 14, 1997
Nine-year-old Keith Morehouse didn't know his future was charted when his father died in the Marshall University plane crash 27 years ago today.
All he knew was his dad, Gene Morehouse, was a neat guy who brightened the house when he came home at night. And he had the coolest job around as play-by-play radio broadcaster for Marshall football and basketball games. He was the voice of Marshall sports.
And then he was gone, killed along with 74 others when a DC-9 carrying the 1970 Marshall football team, boosters and flight crew crashed near Tri-State Airport the evening of Nov. 14, 1970.
One of six children, Morehouse grew up fatherless in the shadow of the crash, still the worst tragedy in U.S. sports history. Twenty-nine children lost parents on Southern Airways Flight 932. They became Huntington's daughters and sons as a wounded community looked after its own following the crash.
It was the connection between those who lost loved ones that day that drew Morehouse to Debbie Hagley, whose mother and father died in the crash. She would become his wife.
Morehouse signed up for broadcast journalism classes at Marshall. And after 13 years as a TV news and sports reporter, Marshall called one day.
Would he become the voice of Marshall sports?
A voice that had been speaking to him softly for years became louder and clearer. He thought of his father, his family and Huntington.
"I felt like it was time to finish the job," Morehouse says.
Gene Morehouse was raised in Newark, N.J., and graduated from high school in New York City. He went to Columbia University from 1940 to 1942, leaving at 20 to join the Army Air Corps and fight in World War II. He earned the Bronze Star for courage in combat.
In 1946, while a reporter for the New York Daily Fruit Reporter, he married New Yorker Genevieve Vivlamore.
Gene Morehouse was a broadcaster to the bone and that passion carried him and Gen to small towns such as Keokuk, Iowa, before they landed in West Virginia.
In 1949, he became sports and news director at WWNR in Beckley. Save for a two-year stint in Manchester, N.H., the Morehouses lived in Beckley until 1967.
During that time he averaged more than 50 play-by-play broadcasts a year, calling high school sports and semiprofessional football.
Perhaps more than anything, Gene Morehouse was known for his 16 years as the voice of Beckley's Flying Eagles. In 1959 and 1960, he called football games played by a Beckley football star named Bobby Pruett.
"I remember Keith's dad very vividly," says Pruett, now Marshall's head football coach. "He was a great guy and an outstanding announcer."
His peers recognized his professionalism by naming him West Virginia's outstanding sportscaster in 1963 and 1965.
In July 1968, Gene, then 46, reluctantly moved his family from Beckley to become Marshall's sports information director and radio play-by-play announcer.
"He had to have both jobs, that's the only way he would do it because he had six children to support," Keith Morehouse says.
Far from the winning ways of Beckley's Woodrow Wilson High School, Marshall was coming off a dismal 0-10 season in 1967. During Gene Morehouse's first year behind the microphone, the team didn't fare much better at 0-9-1.
Their futility was the subject of jokes, their athletic facilities the laughingstock of the Mid-American Conference. In 1969, in the face of 144 alleged recruiting violations, Marshall was booted from the MAC.
Even during these depressing days for Marshall football, Gene Morehouse gained the respect of his staff.
"He was a very kind individual and an easy person to work with and for," says Joe Wortham, Marshall's concessions manager, who worked for Gene Morehouse keeping stats for Marshall games. "He was really doing two full-time jobs and worked hard at both. He took pride in his radio work. It wasn't something he did lightly. He would spend many hours memorizing names and facts."
He also earned the respect of the sports writers covering the Herd, who typically eyed broadcasters warily.
"He was a newsperson as much as he was a broadcaster," says Ernie Salvatore, columnist and former sports editor for The Herald-Dispatch. "That's why he always got along with the sports reporters. He was like me, an Easterner who fell in love with West Virginia and stayed."
In 1969, under new football coach Rick Tolley, the disgraced Marshall football team snapped a 27-game winless streak with a homecoming win over Bowling Green. The team won three games that year.
"When Dad was with Marshall they were struggling and on probation," says Keith's older brother, Steve Morehouse. "But Dad was smart enough to know they had a bright future."
In 1970, the Herd managed another three wins and nearly pulled off a victory on Nov. 14 against East Carolina at Greenville, N.C. That chilly afternoon, 37 team members, five coaches, 21 boosters, seven university employees and a five-member fight crew loaded onto the team plane and winged back toward Huntington. Gene Morehouse was on the plane. So were Debbie Hagley's parents, Ray and Shirley Hagley.
On the approach to Tri-State Airport, a faulty altimeter deceived the pilots into thinking they were 400 feet higher than they actually were. The plane slammed into a hillside west of the airport, tore a 95-foot gash in the earth and broke apart in flames on the foggy, rainy night.
There were no survivors.
<b>'A natural fit'</b>
Keith Morehouse isn't sure exactly when it clicked that he wanted to be a sports announcer. The seed may have been planted when he played on the court after Herd basketball games while his father wrapped up a broadcast.
In the next few years, while his mother, a registered nurse at Cabell Huntington Hospital, worked and raised six children, Keith's love for sports began to have a purpose.
"I can remember being in the eighth grade thinking that I might want to go into sports broadcasting," he says.
His brothers and sisters remember his dream more clearly.
"Keith seemed to always have in mind what he wanted to do for a career, while the rest of us were normal people and couldn't figure out what we wanted," Steve Morehouse says.
"I remember that it seemed like a natural fit because he was always so outgoing and was so interested in sports," says Gail McDowell, Keith's oldest sibling.
After high school, he enrolled in broadcast journalism classes, learning the craft from former WSAZ anchorman Bos Johnson. Fresh from college, Morehouse took a job as a part-time news reporter with WOWK-TV.
"For a while, I did news almost exclusively, all the while knowing I wanted to eventually get into sports," he recalls.
Long hours, modest pay and nerve-jangling deadlines are the life of a young reporter, but Keith Morehouse had no regrets.
"I enjoy the exhilaration of live television," he says. "It's live and you can't go back and do it over again."
Within a few years he was occasionally covering sports and then, finally, he was promoted to weekend sports anchor.
In late 1995, when WOWK's lead sports anchor, Dave Maetzold, left Huntington for a job in Columbus, Ohio, Morehouse hoped he would be picked for the top job.
"I asked for the job, I thought I deserved it, but they decided they wanted to go in another direction," Morehouse says. WOWK hired Dave Furst, who has since left Huntington to work in a bigger market.
For the first time, Keith Morehouse seriously considered leaving Huntington.
<b>'An indelible bond'</b>
Senior week in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is a Mountain State rite of passage.
Diplomas and graduation cash in hand, new high school graduates head to the coast for seven days of unreserved fun before the summer jobs begin.
In 1979, Keith Morehouse and Debbie Hagley met at a beach bar called Castaways. Debbie graduated from Huntington East, Keith went to Huntington High. They had never met.
A few minutes into their first conversation, the two teen-agers found they had more in common than the Class of '79.
"It came up pretty soon after we met each other," says Debbie Morehouse, who is also one of six children. "Keith asked me if my parents were in the crash. I told him they were. And that was pretty much it."
Without having had a single conversation they had shared experiences that would shape the rest of their lives.
"I had never met her but I recognized her name," Morehouse says. "I had seen the names of people associated with the crash so many times it was burned into my brain."
Before long they were dating. Six years later they were married.
"Would we have gotten together if our parents weren't in the plane crash?" Keith Morehouse says, repeating the question as he considers it. "I don't know. We understand things about each other that I'm not sure anyone else could."
Cozy is the word the mind conjures when you visit the Morehouses' home on brick-surfaced, tree-lined 15th Street. They live in a comfortable two-story home with their son, Lake, 6, a blond-haired first-grader who forever has a question on his lips.
A small picture frame in their living room holds a card that reads: "A small town is like a big family."
It's more than a Hallmark phrase to the Morehouses. After the crash, the community did its best to fill the void created in their lives.
"The crash formed a deep and indelible bond with the people who live in the city," Morehouse says. "I understand that some people may not want to hear about it anymore. But for us and other people involved it's always going to be a big part of our lives. I mean, our son doesn't have any grandparents now that my mom died a few years ago."
Twenty-seven years have eased the pain of the memories. Marshall's success in academics and athletics has been a fitting tribute to the crash victims. A modern football field has replaced rickety Fairfield Stadium and new academic buildings have popped up all over campus.
"Most of it is positive now," Morehouse says. "I truly think it's a unique story. We have seen the abyss. No school in the country has gone through what Marshall has."
<b>A tricky proposition</b>
Morehouse was still at WOWK but trying to iron out his future when the phone rang three weeks before the 1996 football season. It was Dan Shoemaker of Creative Production Services, who produces football and basketball broadcasts for Marshall University. He wanted Keith Morehouse to handle play by play for football and basketball games.
"They had been talking to (former WSAZ sports anchor) Kevin Nathan, but he got another job and moved," Keith Morehouse says. "Then they called me. I was extremely flattered that my name came up."
The offer, though exciting, caused Morehouse a certain amount of anxiety.
There were obstacles to overcome before he could accept.
WOWK's chief competitor, WSAZ-TV, has a contract with Marshall to televise some MU games and the coaches' television shows. For that reason, working for Marshall and WOWK would never work. And when he took a job with WSAZ, WOWK immediately sued, alleging he had violated an agreement not to work for a competing station for a year after leaving WOWK.
"It was a difficult decision because I knew there might be a chance (WOWK) would oppose it," Morehouse says.
Letters poured in to The Herald-Dispatch criticizing WOWK for its handling of Morehouse's situation.
But the dispute died when WOWK modified the noncompete agreement to allow Morehouse to pursue a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"I thought if it could all work out with him switching stations it would be great," Debbie Morehouse says. "We were all rooting for him. But I had my doubts that it would happen."
It happened. And in the separate experiences of father and son, you can find evidence of Marshall's rise from disgrace and tragedy.
The father announced 16 football games over two seasons before he called a Marshall win. The son didn't announce a Marshall football loss until his 16th game as the TV voice of the Herd - the 1997 season opener against West Virginia University.
The father was in his second year in Huntington when Marshall was kicked out of the MAC for a laundry list of NCAA violations. In the son's second season as Marshall's play-by-play man, the Herd has made a historical return the NCAA Division I-A and the MAC.
For people such as Salvatore, who remember Gene Morehouse, watching his son broadcast the games beside color analyst Sonny Randle says something about the cycle of life.
For Morehouse, it's as natural as getting out of bed in the morning.
"It's meant a lot to me and my family," Morehouse says. "I never consciously set out to become the Marshall play-by-play guy. But I worked hard over the years and when the opportunity came I felt I was ready. I'd like to think I have been successful because of my father and also because I have worked hard."
In the day-to-day hustle, the plane crash isn't always in the front of his mind.
"I think about it mostly when we fly to games," Morehouse says. "I think there are other people on the team who think about it, too. People clap when we land sometimes."
Like his father, his passion for broadcasting has meant working two jobs and exhausting hours. He typically works 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday for WSAZ. The Bob Pruett Show is taped on Thursday mornings and on the weekends he belongs to the Herd, whether playing home or away.
During football and basketball seasons, the schedule rarely allows more than a couple of hours a day with Lake and Debbie, who teaches first grade at Spring Hill Elementary.
"It's a heavy load," Morehouse says. "It's taxing. We have a joke in August when Marshall Media Day comes around. Debbie says, Ã?I'll see you in March.' My wife has been very understanding and has made it possible for me to do this."
But Debbie Morehouse does get to see her husband on game days like thousands of other Marshall fans now that she watches games at home on television. Other family members share her pride.
"It means a lot to all of us," says Morehouse's sister, Gail McDowell. "We always said it was a shame that Dad died because he would have been so proud of Keith. He has worked so hard to carry on where Dad left off."
Keith Morehouse would say he was just finishing the job.