Gone guys: Remembering a tragedy 50 years on

Jesus

Mary Sheehy Moe

A statue of Jesus looks out over the small cemetery in Manchester, Mont., where W. Robert Fairfull is buried. He and two other well-known young athletes from Great Falls were killed in a car wreck 50 years ago today.

It’s beautiful, that stretch of highway between Great Falls and Glasgow. It doesn’t gob-smack you, like the Missions do outside St. Ignatius on Highway 93. It’s more like something you breathe in, mile after mile of highway yawning through gently rolling plains fringed with river flora and laced with creeks that dry up or freeze or gush as the season dictates. It has the exhilaration of limitless possibility in the summer, the desolation of an all-encompassing emptiness in the winter.

That night it was summer. They were young men in their 20s, leaving wives and work behind for the weekend to play softball in Plentywood. Jack Evankovich, 26, was driving a brand-new Ford Galaxie, fresh off the car lot and rarin’ to go. Terry Casey, 23, was just home for the summer. In the fall, he’d start a teaching job in Minnesota before going to Grenoble, France, with the U.S. hockey team for the 1968 Winter Olympics. And that wasn’t all that would be new. He would become a father for the first time in October.

For Danny Ryan, 28, traveling to softball tournaments had become a beloved ritual of summer. During the year he supervised surveying crews for the city of Great Falls, coaching youth teams, playing basketball in city rec, and officiating high school games in his spare time. But in the summer, he got to play fast-pitch softball all across the state. He was good at it. Time after time, tourney after tourney, there was Danny’s name among the All-Stars.

As often as not, Bob Fairfull’s name was right there with Danny’s. Twenty-nine, he’d excelled in high school basketball, but baseball was his sport of choice. He’d gone to Whitworth in Spokane on a baseball scholarship, but the pull of Montana and a girl named Judy brought him back. He made Judy his wife in 1960 and now he had two little kids and a job as a fireman first-class. And on a summer weekend, he had softball.

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“All I remember is that big grille, right in front of me,” Alice Riley recalls, demonstrating the feeling by drawing the splayed fingers of her hand close to her face. We’re sitting in her log home in Columbia Falls. An enormous willow tree outside flickers sunlight through the picture window.

“There was nothing I could do,” she says, shaking her head.

It’s a long drive from Bemidji, Minn., where Alice Strowbridge Riley grew up, to Columbia Falls, Mont., but most summers, then and now, Alice makes the trip to see her family. That summer her brother Bill and his newlywed wife, Bonnie, rode with her on the return trip. Bill had been doing the driving, but somewhere around Glasgow, he needed a break. Alice, then 31, got behind the wheel. Two miles west of Hinsdale, a 1967 Ford Galaxie swerved across the center line and hit the right front of their car before careening 108 feet into the borrow pit.

Bill Strowbridge, 22, was killed instantly. Bonnie, 18, had been kneeling on the floor in the back tending to Alice’s four children when the car was struck. She was badly injured. Alice’s three girls suffered minor injuries. The rescue team found her 9-year-old son wandering in a nearby field, dazed. Alice had a broken neck, some broken ribs, and a bruise the shape and size of a steering wheel was taking shape on her chest and stomach.

And the occupants of the 1967 Ford Galaxie? Only the driver, Jack Evankovich, survived.

It was a wide stretch of new highway, newly repaved. The lanes were plainly marked and the visibility very good, Highway Patrolman Bob Waldo reported. It was a terrible collision. “The speedometer in Evankovich’s car was stuck on 90 miles an hour, and the one in the other was stuck at 43 miles per hour. You looked at the fronts and you couldn’t tell what kind of cars they are.”

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July 8, 1967, didn’t start out well for Jerry Kuntz. The MSU student had a summer job with the Highway Department, and he had to get out to the job site early to check the gravel before it was poured. As he left the station around 4 a.m., he noticed the gas gauge was close to empty so he took a couple of gallons off a fuel truck to tide him over.

He no sooner got going than black smoke was rolling all around him. Damn! It was diesel! He headed for home, easing the truck down the alley to park in his dad’s garage so that he could empty the fuel tank.

Falls hockey

A display at the Great Falls History Museum shows Terry Casey when he played for the Great Falls Americans.

He turned on the radio for a voice in the darkness. He was lying under that truck when the news came over the radio: Terry Casey, Danny Ryan, and Bob Fairfull—arguably the three best-known and best-liked athletes in Great Falls at the time—had been killed the night before in a car accident outside Hinsdale.

Stunned, he eased himself out from under the truck and stared at the radio. Bob Fairfull? Yes, he could smack a baseball a mile and barrel past defenders on the basketball court, but anybody who spent five minutes around him knew he was a teddy bear.

Danny Ryan? Jerry had been an altar boy at his wedding. Danny had been his first football coach and was pretty much a fixture at the ballfields in the summer. He was fun personified, always laughing, always up for a prank, as Irish as his name.

And Terry Casey? Terry was a god in Great Falls. It wasn’t just that he starred in every sport he played. He did everything with class, in and out of the arena. There was no showboating, no cheap shot, no preening or taunting. He was that rare guy that you hated to have on the opposing team but longed to pal around with after the game. Like the gifted athlete Phineas in “A Separate Peace,” his grace, as an athlete and as a person, was too unusual for rivalry.

How could these three be gone—just like that?

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Across the river, 9-year-old Mary Ryan was wakened by her aunt, who told her the bad news about her dad. Then she led Mary out to a living room filled with people. Mary searched from face to face until she saw her mother. “She was crying,” Mary said, “so I started crying too. I remember not knowing what to do. It was so confusing.”

Mary’s mother, Terry, had fallen asleep on the couch the night before, folding diapers. Around midnight, she heard knocking at the front door. Danny’s two brothers had come to tell her about the accident, and the living room started filling up shortly thereafter. It kept filling up all night, all morning, and all afternoon.

Nancy Casey had learned about Terry the night before, too. Six months pregnant, she had decided to spend the weekend with her parents since Terry would be in Plentywood. At about 11 p.m., the phone rang. Her father took the call and, with her mother, told Nancy that Terry was gone. After that, things were a blur for a long time.

Judy Fairfull was at home that Friday night. With a friend, she was working on their upcoming 10th high school reunion when Bob’s parents dropped by. His father had received the call and, like Nancy’s folks, they came to tell her together. Fifty years later, Judy remembered her reaction vividly: “Horror,” she said. “And disbelief.”

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By noon that Saturday, the entire town was feeling what Jerry Kunz felt at dawn’s early light. “It was like a punch to the gut,” one now-grizzled soul told me. “Everyone was reeling.”

“You have to understand,” Larry Lucero, retired teacher-coach and lifelong friend of Terry Casey, said. “Great Falls was smaller then—or it seemed smaller. There wasn’t anybody in town who didn’t know at least one of these guys. We’d all grown up watching them play.”

Bison

In this clip from the Jan. 1, 1956, Great Falls Tribune, Bob Fairfull (31) puts up two points for the Great Falls Bison.

And so they had. Even today, 50 years later, the stories about the young men who died outside Hinsdale on July 7, 1967, get dusted off with regularity. The time Fairfull racked up 18 points to win the championship game against Anaconda and capture the state basketball title for the Bison. The power that upper torso brought to bear when he blasted a hard-thrown softball over the fence. The unassuming manner, the get-’er-done work ethic.

Danny Ryan. Always Danny, not Dan. On the sports pages, circumspect coaches speak of the fine boy he was, that fighting spirit he had. But around a table at the Stein Haus, you hear about a guy who loved athletics the way he loved life: for the fun of it. And he was fun to watch.

He was the catcher who would scramble around in the dirt behind the plate as if he’d lost the ball after a low pitch. Once the base-runner fell for it, he’d pick off the hapless sucker trying to steal third.

Or he’d limp up to bat after a tough half-inning behind the plate. Between pitches, he’d step out of the batter’s box and grimace and then settle himself painfully back in his stance, as though he’d be checking into the emergency room right after the game. And then he’d drag a bunt down the first base line, scamper like a deer to first, and steal second just for good measure.

Terry Casey had it all. Every girl in town had had a crush on him sometime—in fifth grade, ninth grade, high school, that summer. Lordy, he was good-looking. Even as a stick boy for the Great Falls Americans hockey team, you wanted to kiss him till he begged you not to stop. And he was nice. To be five grades younger was to be on a different planet in those days, but Terry always had time to throw a few passes to the Martians hanging around after practice or to pitch a few fastballs to the boys from Saturn when he finished a shift at Mitchell Pool.

Terry was a born athlete. Wrestling? He could have gone to state as a freshman, but it was considered too dangerous for athletes that young to compete against guys who were three years older. Football? He was a quarterback with a beautiful arm, deft feet, and a sense of the field at all times. Hockey? Gifted. A player with the finesse of a figure skater, the fire of a hockey player, the whole rink in his vision, and a God-given, Casey-honed talent to elude the defense, make the puck his, and put it in the goal.

Fast-pitch softball? He was a pitcher, of course, the key player in that game. “Geez, he was hard to catch,” my husband always mutters. “He had a fast ball that would kind of rise up on you. And his slider! He’d brush it against his leg somehow and it would be coming right down the pipe and then drop away just as the batter swung. Incredibly hard on hitters. But hard on catchers, too.”

Larry Lucero empathized. Terry practiced relentlessly, no matter what sport it was, and he wanted to master a new pitch and dust off the old ones before the Plentywood tournament. So all week before the tournament, Larry would catch for him. “He had me hopping,” Larry said, laughing. “It got so bad I told him, ‘Terry, you got to tell me what you’re throwing before you throw it!’”

Larry was hoping to play in Plentywood himself, but when he asked Tom Sullivan, his boss at Parks and Rec, for the time off, Sully said he couldn’t spare him.

“It was Sully who called me to tell me what happened,” Larry said, the smile fading out of his voice.

“So you would have been in that car too…”

“Yeah. Sully reminded me of that during the call. But all I could think about at that moment was those three guys—gone. Gone.”

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It was the story that replaced our childhood fairy tales: boys who loved a game and who, in the course of playing it, became local heroes. Boys who married their high school sweethearts, made a good life in their hometown, and stayed on to raise their kids there and help other kids there, one day watching those kids make stories of their own.

But this story had a surprise ending that broke hearts. Nancy Casey, Terry Ryan and Judy Fairfull were widowed in their 20s. Terry had six children to care for. Judy’s children were only 4 years old and 13 months old at the time. Nancy’s baby was born the October after that awful summer. Like her father, her name is Terry Lee.

Lourdes

Coach Danny Ryan, upper left, with his seventh-grade football team at Our Lady of Lourdes School. The photo ran in the Oct. 28, 1958, Great Falls Tribune.

Most of these children grew up with no memory of their fathers. Instead, they had an outline, colored in over the years by the stories of a generation who knew their daddies when. And loved them. And lost them too.

Of course, for that generation there is the solace of the genes. My husband ran into “the Casey girl” at a fast-food restaurant in Great Falls some 15 years ago. He took one look and froze in his tracks. “You must be a Casey,” he said to her, and at that moment Nancy returned from the restroom. She introduced Terry’s daughter Terry to his former fellow lifeguard at Mitchell Pool.

Lynn Fairfull, 13 months old at the time of the accident, has four children now. The youngest, 15-year-old twins, are very sports-minded, Judy says, and—go figure—they’re already all-stars in baseball.

And Mary Ryan Secord, the confused little girl in that living room half a century ago? “One hundred percent Danny Ryan,” Jerry Kuntz said. “You can see his face in her face, and when she laughs, it’s Danny all over again. I’ll never forget that laugh.”

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The cemetery in Manchester, Mont., is a small, well-tended one. A statue of Jesus surrounded by orange lilies welcomes you at the gate. Inside, the grave of W. Robert Fairfull is marked by an engraved stone embedded in the earth in a row of similar stones stretching out toward the skyline.

It’s quiet there on a summer day, the silence broken only by the occasional buzz of a bee or a meadlowlark’s song. Long gone and far away are the cheers in the old gym at Great Falls High, the throngs in the hockey stands at the Civic Center, the wives and kids and classmates on the ballfields that summered those young men’s short lives.

“Why is she doing this?” I could hear one wife ask her husband as I interviewed him on the phone. I understood the question. I had never known Terry or Bob or Danny. I had only begun hearing the story 42 years ago. And her question helped me understand something that was troubling me. What I’d been hearing at times as weariness was in fact wariness. Yes, that time was long ago and far away. But it can still hurt.

I sit down next to Jesus in the quiet of that cemetery and repeat the question. Why am I doing this? I don’t know exactly. Because it’s a good story—several good stories, actually. Because I don’t want the stories to fade away with the voices and the memories of those who tell them. Because I want all this loss to matter. Because there is something about sport that can elevate us, help us to see the beauty in others, bring us together. It isn’t just the winning, the titles, the plaques and photos in the gym. It’s something about the moment. Moments like the one Jerry Kuntz remembered.

Wreck

A copy of the July 11, 1967, edition of the Glasgow Courier, still in Alice Riley’s possession, carried a big story on the terrible wreck.

Danny Ryan coached Jerry’s seventh-grade football team. They did rather well, but Jerry doesn’t revel in their record or recall this play or that. Instead he relishes the memory of that moment at the end of practice some days when Danny Ryan would bring the ball down the field himself, daring the kids he coached to tackle him. Off they would go, a pack of seventh-graders chasing the storied athlete through a leaf-dappled field of Indian summer, all of them jubilant in their youth, in their sport, in their fun. And all of them laughing— especially Danny Ryan.

But when you conjure up some moments, they come wrapped in pain. During that long night when Terry Ryan’s living room filled up with devastated relatives and friends, there was a moment when they learned that one of the guys in the Ford Galaxie had survived. It had to be Danny! Terry thought. Everyone in the room, knowing Danny, thought that too. The mood lightened. “But it was only a moment,” Terry told me, and the excitement drained from her voice. “Pretty soon we found out that he wasn’t the one who made it. He was gone for good.”

And sometimes memories take the rememberer by surprise. Mary Ryan Secord told me that one of her most vivid memories of her father is walking beside him on the way to church on a Sunday morning. She was mesmerized by his stride, his legs so long that he stepped only once in each sidewalk block, while she hopped along, trying to keep up. I started to josh her that, at that age, she would of course have been trying hard not to step on a crack lest she broke her mother’s back, but I could hear her voice catching in her throat.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” I said. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“It’s OK,” she assured me. “You know me. Sometimes I just do.”

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Early on in the drive that ended west of Hinsdale, while they were still on Route 87 heading to Highway 2 out of Havre, the ballplayers would have been within a few dozen miles of the Eye of the Needle. Located on the Missouri River about 56 miles downstream from Fort Benton, this naturally occurring arch had been a source of wonder for who knows how long. Meriwether Lewis had remarked on it, and nearly two centuries later, it was one of the draws that brought tourists from all over the country to the Missouri River Breaks.

Sometime in 1997, the arch disappeared, leaving behind two disconnected and somewhat unremarkable pillars. Investigators concluded that vandalism was the cause; drunken teenagers, the likely vandals. Public outrage was intense. A $20,000 reward was offered for information leading to their apprehension. “I wanted to catch them and hang them,” the executive director of the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce later recalled.

But in time, cooler heads prevailed. Geologists say erosion was the more likely culprit, and they’re probably right. We’ll never know for sure.

Nor, it appears, will the friends and family of Casey, Fairfull and Ryan know for sure what caused that brand-new Ford Galaxie to veer into the other lane sometime after 8:30 p.m. on July 7, 1967. If the driver, Jack Evankovich, is still alive, it’s hard to find him. And just as hard to track what he’s been up to for the past half-century.

One of the widows “seems to remember” that he visited each of them to tell them how horrible it was for him. The other two say they’ve neither seen nor heard from him in all these 50 years. “I’m sure the guilt he felt was just terrible,” Terry (Ryan) Toole mused.

A community full of people who wax loquacious on the topic of Casey, Fairfull and Ryan grow silent and glum when Evankovich is mentioned.

“It’s just human nature,” one of them tells me. “Those three were so well-known, so well-liked … and then they were killed, suddenly and senselessly. The one who survived—well, he was less well-known, less well-liked. And he was driving.”

Had Jack Evankovich been drinking on that long drive from Great Falls to Hinsdale? There’s not a whisper of that in the news reports of the accident and subsequent legal proceedings. Had he dozed off at the wheel? Unlikely, given the liveliness of his companions. Had he been driving too fast and been too distracted by the radio, the laughter, something? The speedometer was stuck at 90. But Jack, like the other occupants of his car, was an athlete, quick to react, and there were no brake marks at the scene.

Four years later, a jury of 12 in Detroit concluded that the fault lay in the vehicle, not its driver. “We had the car shipped back to Detroit for examination,” attorney Dick Goodman told me. “They found a defective component in the steering gearbox that made the steering column ‘hang up’ such that you couldn’t steer. We were able to show that it had happened with other Ford vehicles.”

Science won the case, but science had help. Jack Evankovich’s testimony had been a key component of the verdict that brought his three passengers’ families some compensation for their loss.

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Willow

Mary Sheehy Moe

A giant willow tree, which Alice Riley planted from a limb almost 60 years ago, dominates her beautiful yard in Columbia Falls.

Alice Riley has lived a stone’s throw from Highway 2 for all 81 years (so far!) of her life. She fell in love with a Bemidji boy as a young girl, married him, and raised a family with him 1,000 miles west, just off Highway 2 in Columbia Falls.

She was in the Glasgow hospital for five days after the accident. Then she was transported to Great Falls, where she was in traction for five weeks. She was still in a brace and would be for six months when she returned to the very same log house that we sat in last weekend.

Bonnie Strowbridge, two months pregnant, went back to Bemidji after the accident. Like Nancy Casey, her baby was a girl, and like Nancy, she named her first child after the baby’s father—Billie Jean. By the time Billie Jean was 10 years old, the experts concluded that her mental capacity had reached its limit. Had the stress of the accident or the multiple fractures her mother had endured affected the baby in utero? “We’ll never know for sure,” Alice said.

Like Nancy, in time Bonnie won the love of another good man, who shared the joys and duties of parenthood with her for the rest of her life. But Nancy is alive and well today, still living in Great Falls. Bonnie collided with cancer 21 years ago, and this time she didn’t survive. She was 47 years old when she died. Billie Jean died at the age of 32.

Jim and Alice Riley return to Bemidji most summers to visit family. They take Highway 2 all the way and drive by the accident site every time.

“They used to have the four white crosses there,” Alice tells me, “but they’re gone now. Too long ago to matter, I suppose.”

I took a picture of Alice’s willow tree before I left. I’m fascinated by it. She planted it from a limb sometime around 1960, but it was already tall by the time she came home after the accident. It’s gigantic now, dwarfing the house and dominating the beautifully kept yard and gardens. I like to think that writing is that way. People die. Too often, their stories die with the tellers. But if you plant the story well, nurture it, protect it against the accidents of fate and the inevitabilities of time, it becomes the tree that shades you, the tree your children swing from, the tree that tells you you’re home.

Leaving Alice’s, I turn left onto Highway 2 and head back to Great Falls. The roads are crowded until I turn off 2 beyond Browning. Then I sink back into what I think of as my country: the Rocky Mountain Front at my back and all around me the prairies of the pioneers, limitless and vast. It’s the kind of landscape that makes you ask “what if” questions looking ahead, and I’ve had enough of brooding over those questions, looking back.

Like those guys 50 years ago, I’m more than halfway to my destination and impatient to get there. No need to wait for the pokey farmer ahead to turn off at his place, I tell myself. I can see the road ahead for miles.

I pull out to pass him and, whizzing by, I look down at my speedometer. I’m going 90 miles an hour. But just for a moment, I tell myself. Just for a moment.

Mary Sheehy Moe retired from the Montana University System in 2010 and has since served on the Great Falls School Board and in the Montana Senate. She lives in Great Falls.

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