HUNTINGTON -- In the hundreds of stories that grew out of Hollywood invading Huntington to film "We Are Marshall," perhaps none was more intriguing than that of "the letter."

The letter was simply that. A letter, written anonymously, stowed in a plastic bag along with a single rose, and placed under a piece of sandstone at the foot of the memorial in Spring Hill Cemetery to the Marshall football players and Huntington community members who lost their lives in the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.

It simply asked that the filmmakers treat the project with respect and sensitivity, and realize the seriousness of the impact of the crash on the community.

The letter would be found by actor Arlen Escarpeta, who played Marshall quarterback Reggie Oliver in the film, and Parker Ward, who lost his father in the crash, when the two visited the memorial together.

It would be brought to the filmmakers, copied and distributed among cast and crew. Escarpeta would go on to say in interviews that the letter changed the whole production's level of dedication to the project.

And the man who wrote it didn't even know if anyone would ever find it.

"I had hope," said Thomas Rone, who graduated from Marshall in 1971.

Rone came close to making the trip to Greenville, N.C., that would prove to be the last for most of the 1970 football team. As an undergraduate communications student, he was doing play-by-play of the football games for Marshall's student radio station, WMUL. He said he was offered the chance to go, but was told that if he went to Greenville for the Thundering Herd's game with East Carolina University, he wouldn't be able to go on location for any post-season basketball work.

"It was one or the other," he said. "At the time, Marshall's basketball team had been pretty successful. They had been in the NIT in 1967 and '69, so we decided to wait. That's how close we came."

Rone was close to the sports scene at Marshall at the time, and lost several friends in the crash. Like many Huntington residents, Rone has had a close emotional attachment to the event for decades.

When it was announced the film was going to be made, Rone, a teacher at Cabell Midland for 33 years, said he felt like he had to do something "to contribute."

He said he kept coming back to the idea of the letter.

So he wrote it, rewrote it, had his wife proofread it, and then placed it in the bag with the single rose.

"I thought it may or may not be found, but I knew they couldn't make a movie without going to the cemetery," he said.

As for the presentation, Rone said he put the letter in the bag so it wouldn't get wet, and put it under a rock so it wouldn't blow away. And the rose?

"A single rose I guess is just more of a symbol of perfection," he said.

Four days later, the letter was discovered by Ward and Escarpeta. Ward said the letter was almost discovered by accident.

"It wasn't like it was staring you in the face," he said. "There were probably 40 to 50 different flower arrangements around the memorial. It wasn't like it was sitting out there by itself."

After the story of the letter began to circulate, Ward said he got a call from Rone's wife, Janet, telling him it was Rone who had written the letter.

"I talked to him, and he knew things about it that made me confident this was the guy who had written it," Ward said. "The way he was saying these things, it would have been hard to make it up."

In particular, Ward said, Rone knew the last line from the letter, which was a quote about hope from the film "The Shawshank Redemption."

After that, Rone was disclosed as the author of the letter to a select few around the project, but the filmmakers still kept his identity anonymous, something Rone said he preferred.

"I've always been kind of a private person, and I didn't want to take any attention away from the movie during filming," he said.

Janet said it was extremely difficult to keep quiet, because she was so proud of her husband.

"But I respected him and knew what he wanted," she said.

Rone said he has come forward now because some of those connected with the crash have asked him to.

"I just want those family members to know I was the one who wanted to help them," he said.

In the end, Rone said he feels like he got what he asked for.

"You can debate certain things, certain portrayals of this person or that person," he said. "But these guys put their heart and soul into the project. They were respectful and showed sensitivity to the people who were tragically affected by this."


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