John Shearer: Wichita State Team Crash Of 50 Years Ago Had Local Connection
Tuesday, January 12, 2021 - by John Shearer
- photo by Ruth Jones in late 1960s church directory
Rev. Elton Jones in late 1960s
Red Bank United Methodist in late 1960s
Some of Jones family in late 1960s
Ray and Yvonne King and children before 1970 crash
Gary King and sisters in 2016
Gary King and his family in 2020
50-year-old small cedar cross made by the Rev. Elton Jones
Ruth Jones in later years
About the time I became old enough to start following the world more closely around the late 1960s, I became a big college football fan.
I watched the weekly game on ABC TV in the fall – when I was not outside playing a pickup game and dreaming of one day being a college player – and my parents also bought me a subscription to Sports Illustrated.
But it was simply an unusual local connection that made me take note of a very somber moment in college football during that time.
On Friday, Oct. 2, 1970, one of two planes carrying the Wichita State Shockers football team and supporters to a game at Utah State crashed in Colorado, killing 29 people initially, with two later dying from injuries suffered.
Two of those who died were Wichita construction executive and Kansas state legislator Ray King, and his wife, Yvonne. Mr. King was the brother of Ruth Jones, who helped serve as the music director at Red Bank United Methodist Church, where her husband, the Rev. Elton Jones, was the senior pastor in 1970.
That was also where my family and I attended church at the time, and I can distinctly remember sitting in the church probably the Sunday after the crash, and the Jones family and the church members were talking about the shocking event and were in mourning. I was only 11 at the time and have forgotten the other details of the church’s reaction, but I remember vividly the sadness.
I also remember seeing a story in Sports Illustrated afterward about the crash.
With Monday’s national championship victory by Alabama over Ohio State putting an exclamation point on the passage of 50 football seasons since the tragedy, I decided to try and revisit that sad time through some of the Jones and King families.
As many know, the incident actually took place the same fall as another unfortunate air crash involving a college football team. On Saturday, Nov. 14, 1970, the Marshall football team was returning to Huntington, W.Va., following a loss to East Carolina when their plane crashed short of the runway upon their approach.
All 75 people on board were killed, making the Marshall crash the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S history.
For some reason, perhaps due to the number of people killed, the Marshall event seems to have remained more in the general American public’s consciousness over the years than the Wichita State one, at least outside Kansas.
That could partly be due to the 2006 release of the popular and uplifting movie, “We are Marshall,’’ which dealt with the school’s efforts to restart the football program after the tragedy.
Matthew McConaughey played post-crash coach Jack Lengyel, and my best friend from college, Dave Williams, had a small part playing the lone assistant Marshall coach who wore glasses. (And yes, he got to hang out with Mr. McConaughey some and said he was a nice and good guy.)
Also, one actual former Marshall player, Ed Carter, who was not on the 1970 trip, has since settled in Chattanooga to run Death Unto Life Ministries. He was quoted in an Associated Press story written closer to the actual 50th anniversary of the Marshall crash last fall.
I had also hoped to reach him for a story or to turn this into a two-part series, but I have been unsuccessful to date.
Regarding the Wichita State crash, I was able to reach one of the Jones’ daughters, Judy Sullins, who lives in Athens, Tn. Although already a young adult by 1970, she recalled over the phone hearing the story that her parents were at a Red Bank High football game that Friday night because younger daughter, Karen (now Karen Siklosi), was a majorette in the band.
“Over the loudspeaker the announcer said, ‘Would the Rev. Elton Jones come to the press box?’ ” Ms. Sullins recalled.
He learned of the tragic event and, because both adult Kings had lost their lives, he went to Colorado to identify their bodies and escort them back to Kansas.
Two chartered Wichita State planes had been carrying the team, and the second one – which carried the starters, head coach Ben Wilson, the athletic director, and school supporters -- had taken a scenic-but-more-difficult flight pattern after both planes refueled at Denver. It crashed in Clear Creek County, Colo., near the Loveland Ski Area just west of Denver in the North Central part of the state.
The Jones family lived right across Dayton Boulevard from the former Red Bank High School in the since-relocated parsonage alongside Redding Road behind the church. Reared in Alabama, the multifaceted Mr. Jones had once written a play, the proceeds of which provided college scholarship money for him and some others.
He also had an opportunity to play football at the famed University of Alabama, his daughter said, but instead decided to pursue the ministry. He went to school in Iowa and met Ruth King during his travels at that time. She was a member of a musical family.
They would raise four children, Eleanor Jones-Payton, Judy, Karen, and Stanley Jones.
Serving as pastor of Red Bank United Methodist from 1966 to the early 1970s, Elton Jones would also pastor First UMC in Cleveland, Wesley Memorial UMC off East Brainerd Road, and Eastdale UMC, also in Chattanooga.
Before his death in 2000, he was also known for preaching at revivals, taking church groups on numerous trips to the Holy Land, and participating in such Biblically themed hobbies as fishing and working with wood.
He also had a famous relative. His brother’s son was Dean Jones, the Walt Disney star of such movies as “The Love Bug.”
I served as the occasional acolyte at Red Bank UMC and remember talking with the Rev. Jones before the services sometimes as he would give me instructions. He always seemed a little nervous to me about the day ahead, perhaps because he took a lot of care with his preaching. He also had a friendly and outgoing manner.
I also still have one of the countless small cedar crosses he made.
His wife, Ruth, was also a dynamic member of the duo, creatively heading the music program at Red Bank UMC and elsewhere. She died in in 2007, and she was buried alongside her husband at Sullins Cemetery in Athens.
Her brother, Ray King, whose body Mr. Jones identified, had been a World War II and Korean War veteran. He worked in the family construction business in Hesston, Ks., just north of Wichita and also began serving in the Kansas state House of Representatives in 1967. A successful man, talk had even surfaced of him running for governor. He had also seen his father die at the age of only 40.
He and Yvonne had flown with the Wichita State team in 1968 to visit some good friends in Utah when the Shockers had last played at Utah State. When two people planning to make the 1970 trip backed out at the last minute, the King couple was asked if they wanted to go again.
They said yes, and that would unfortunately change their and their family’s fate.
Both Judy Sullins and Gary King, Ray King’s only son, who now lives in Cary, N.C., obviously remember that time with sadness. Ray King, who was no doubt a busy local civic leader, had hurriedly dictated a letter and some instructions for his secretary before boarding the plane with his wife for the ill-fated trip, they said.
But Gary and his siblings would be left with decades to slowly ponder their fate as orphans without their loving parents.
However, they would endure through the mostly loving-but-different experiences of being under foster parents hired through the help of relatives and would go on to be productive adults.
Judy Sullins called them all beautiful children and said they have all had rewarding lives.
Gary King said it is hard to have complete closure over such a tragedy, but he said he and his siblings came close to that in 1991, when one of their sisters was married in Colorado and they hiked up to the crash site.
“It was a great experience for us all,” said Gary, who has recently written a self-published-style book about his parents and the event called “The Unsigned Letter” and reconnected with such people as his father’s secretary.
“I feel like I’ve gotten closure.”
Among the legacies of that event, on a sad note, Wichita State had to cancel a subsequent game in 1970 and finished 0-9 on the season. One of their later games was against Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in the Bluff City.
The Shockers discontinued football after 1986 due to financial strains, although the school has had a strong basketball program in recent decades.
However, plenty of bright moments have occurred since then. A memorial park was built in Hesston in his parents’ memory, and the Jones and King families’ have maintained close connections through weddings and other funerals. And that includes the death of oldest King child, Mary Lynne King Bower, in 2018
Gary King, who remembers with emotion how Elton Jones told the children they would try to keep the family intact and together, also remembers a special visit to Chattanooga in 1971 to be with the Jones family when the grieving over the crash was continuing.
“Uncle Elton and his fishing buddy and I went out to fish on a pond,” he recalled. “I was not much of a fisherman, but the three of us, we caught 96 fish.
“Uncle Elton, he knew what he was doing. And he could filet a fish in just a second.”
He also apparently had some skill in providing spiritual nourishment to those hurting as well.
“He did our family a huge service,” Mr. King recalled with feeling. “Uncle Elton was a treasured man to our family. And Aunt Ruth was the sweetest woman in the world.”