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- Lengyel talks about Spring Hill Cemetery
- 2006 Memorial Service
- The 2007 Memorial
- Re-dedication of Memorial Fountain
- Kopp's remarks at the 2007 memorial service
- Snyder talks during the 2007 memorial service
- The annual memorial service for those killed in the 1970 plane crash
- Kluemper's remarks at memorial service
- Ward's remarks at 2007 memorial ceremony
Former Marshall manager remembers phone call that changed life forever
By DAVID WALSH
HUNTINGTON -- Eugene Jones remembers the phone call that changed his life.
It was 1970 and the 18-year-old Jones was fresh out of Talcott High School in Summers County, W.Va., and just beginning his freshman year at Marshall University as a student equipment manager for the football team under a work-study program.
On Nov. 14, 1970, the Thundering Herd was scheduled to play East Carolina. Jones talked his way onto the chartered flight that would take players, coaches, athletic department staff and fans to Greenville, N.C. But, on the Tuesday before the game, Jones received news from home about his grandmother's death.
Jones and his sister went home for the funeral. He informed Marshall coaches he would stay through the weekend, meaning he would miss the game and his first flight.
On the trip home from Greenville, where East Carolina defeated Marshall (17-14), the Southern Airways jet crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport and all 75 aboard died. At a party at a friend's house that rainy night, Jones heard about the tragedy in a phone call from his father.
The 34th memorial service to remember the victims who died that night is today at 2 p.m. at the fountain outside Memorial Student Center.
Jones won't be at the memorial service, but said he'll take time out, as he always does, to remember his friends. To this day Jones said he's still haunted by one question -- why wasn't he on the plane?
"After that day, I began asking the question, 'why not me'?" Jones said Oct. 23 when he returned for Homecoming and watched Marshall's 48-14 victory over Buffalo at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. "I had to fight feelings of guilt. We often don't understand why things happen when they do, but I'm firmly convinced that my life was saved by God and divine intervention. People told me how lucky I was, but I know luck had nothing to do with it."
After the crash, about a week passed before Jones returned to campus.
"I always felt guilty about missing the flight," he said. "I regret not attending funerals, speaking to families who lost loved ones. I just couldn't deal with it. I have always admired Nate Ruffin, Ed Carter (Herd players who missed the trip because of injuries and family matters) and others who became spokesmen for Marshall University and the Marshall survivors."
As time moved on, Jones said he would experience moments when the question about why was he spared would arise. He said he got the answer from a friend one Sunday at church.
"I wondered what my purpose was," he said. "I had my two boys with me. I didn't do anything spectacular. Nate (Ruffin) was the spokesman. Eddie (Carter) was the evangelist. My friend then told me. ... to be their father. I was left to be a husband, a father, a brother, a son (who helps take care of his father who is in a nursing home, and mother who lives alone), a friend to those who need help. I found myself saying yes to things I never imagined myself doing."
During his recent visit Jones also participated in Bring Back the Herd weekend activities for former team managers and athletic trainers.
While a student, Jones worked under Marshall equipment manager John Hagan. Some of the duties during two-a-days involved lining off practice fields on campus, carrying dummies out and having plenty of chin straps ready. When practice shifted to remodeled Fairfield Stadium with its new Astroturf, that meant rides to transport equipment and supplies
And, yes, there was plenty of laundry to be done on a daily basis. Jones said he didn't mind all the work.
"I was spending this much time with players and coaches," he said. "I considered them my friends. Even though I was a manager and not a player, I felt connected to the team. We laughed together at pregame meals, practice and traveling to road games."
Jones said when the players learned he had an older sister in a sorority, he got more attention and requests.
When it came time for the East Carolina game, Jones said funds were limited and only one additional manager could make the trip. That's when he did some serious "begging and pleading" with fellow manager Jerry Seiber, a senior. The two finally agreed Jones would fly and Seiber would bus the next week for the season finale at Ohio University.
"I had never flown before. I was very excited," Jones said in recalling that moment.
The death of his grandmother and the plane crash made all that excitement irrelevant. Once Jones did get back to campus, he had to help unpack the travel bags players had taken to the game. He said the first jersey he pulled out was No. 82 which belonged to wide receiver Jack Repasy.
"There was a little blood on the jersey," he said. "I told myself I can't do this. It was too hard. I left. I regret that decision now."
Some 25 years later, Jones said he received a phone call from someone who wondered if the person he was talking to was indeed Jones. Seiber, the caller, tracked down a phone number for Jones through the Marshall alumni office.
"We relived old times. Jerry said how he'd gone out of town for the weekend, and when he didn't see my name on the passenger list, he didn't know what happened to me," Jones said. Seiber graduated in December 1970 and left Huntington and could only wonder for many years what had happened to Jones.
In 1995, Seiber came down from New Jersey to join Jones, a season-ticket holder, at a Marshall game. They both had kept a practice jersey from 1970 and wore them on special occasions. Seiber has No. 24 and Jones has No. 22.
"We've developed a special bond and friendship that we both share with other Marshall survivors," Jones said. "The bond of Marshall football reaches far and wide."
During ceremonies at the stadium on the 30th anniversary of the crash, Jones said he spent time with former players, especially members of the Young Thundering Herd, and coaches. He said it was special seeing the bronze memorial plaque go up outside the stadium.
Upon returning home that weekend, Jones said he watched "Ashes To Glory," the award-winning documentary about the crash and the struggle to recover from it. During the segment at Fairfield Stadium showing the 30th anniversary memorial service the camera showed some fans.
"Suddenly, there I was, head bowed," Jones said. "My wife said, 'that was you.' I was able to hold it together the rest of the film."
Jones said memories of that day, suppressed for 30 years, came rushing back and tears began to flow. That was minor compared to what happened when he saw the list of players listed one by one on the screen at the end of the film.
"That was the first time I truly broke down," he said. "After 30 years, I cried. I finally had closure."
Jones said this year's Homecoming was special to him, as is the progress made by the football program and university since Nov. 14, 1970.
"It was great to be back and see so many people," he said. "Things are so different and so much bigger. I've never stopped supporting Marshall one bit. The facilities, compared to what the people in our era saw, make you appreciate how far Marshall has come. I heard stories I never heard before.
"I feel so privileged to have been a part of it."