The anniversary of one of the region's worst air disasters passed sort of quietly this week. I was a senior in high school at Marion County High School, some distance away from Evansville, Indiana, but I still remember the breaking news from December 13, 1977.
That 1977-1978 basketball season should have been a season of celebration for the University of Evansville. They had just moved up to Division I athletics and were now playing with the “big boys” so to say. Before Evansville made the move, their men's basketball program was among the elite in NCAA Division II, winning five national championships, which was the most in the country until Kentucky Wesleyan passed them in 1993. Instead of a season of excitement, the 1977-1978 season soon became a season of mourning and healing.
It was just after 7:00pm, on December 13, 1977. The Aces were flying out of the Evansville Regional airport on their way to take on Middle Tennessee. At 7:22pm, the team's DC-3 crashed as it was taking off, killing everyone on board. The coaching staff, and every member of the men's basketball team, except one, was gone in an instant. Only one player from the team was not on the flight, and to add to the tragedy of the situation, that player was killed just two weeks after the crash, when he was hit by a drunk driver.
A season that should have been one of great hope and opportunity was now gone. The community was reeling, and what the future held for the men's basketball program at Evansville was now in question. However, the city and the campus responded with incredible strength, and the basketball program put a team back on the court the very next season.
A memorial has been constructed at the University of Evansville known as the "Weeping Basketball." On stone slabs are engraved the names of the members killed in both the plane crash as well as the student killed in a car accident. Also engraved is an excerpt from the eulogy delivered by school president William Graves at a memorial service: "Out of the agony of this hour we will rise."
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, it still seems like just yesterday.
Seniors: Kevin Kingston, John Ed Washington and Marion Anthony “Tony” Winburn
Juniors: Stephen Miller, Bryan Taylor
Sophomores: Keith Moon
Freshmen: Warren Alston, Ray Comandella, Mike Duff, Kraig Heckendorn, Michael Joyner, Barney Lewis, Greg Smith and Mark Siegel
Student Managers- Jeff Bohnert and Mark Kniese
Coach and Administrators:
Head Coach - Robert "Bobby" Watson
UE Athletic Business Manager - Bob Hudson
UE Comptroller - Charles Shike
Sports Information Director - Gregory Knipping
Radio announcer - Marvin "Marv" Bates
Pilot - Ty Van Pham
Copilot - Gaston Ruiz
Flight attendant - Pamela Smith
Jim Stewart, owner of the air taxi company that owned the plane, National Jet Services
William "Bill" Hartford CEO and co-owner of National Jet Services
David Furr was the remaining member of the team who did not make the trip; he and his brother were killed two weeks later in an auto accident.