Today's history lesson is about coping with loss, although it was loss on a human scale, which is to say a sad, but manageable, scale. I've written about it before in this space, but it was 89 years ago today that Herbert Hoover sent a brief telegram to 39-year-old Bonnie Skiles Rockne of South Bend, Ind. Mrs. Rockne was the wife of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. She had been widowed the day before when a TWA plane crashed in remote Kansas farmland, claiming the life of the famed coach and seven others.
"I know that that every American grieves with you," President Hoover said in his telegram. "Mr. Rockne so contributed to a cleanness and high purpose and sportsmanship in athletics that his passing is a national loss."
In 1931, presidents didn't routinely weigh in on the passing of notable Americans, but the news of Rockne's death had shaken Hoover, and the country. An avid football fan who had been the student manager of Stanford's football team, Hoover was in the Oval Office the day before when a White House aide told him what had happened. "What dreadful, dreadful news!" he responded.
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As the Great Depression took hold, millions of Americans sought solace from their troubles in the feats of their athletic heroes: Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, and the young men playing football at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne. Rockne's appeal transcended the sports pages. Like Kobe Bryant, he was a cross-over cultural star, one of the first: Rockne was on his way to sign a motion picture contract in Los Angeles when his plane went down.
By the time President Hoover's telegram arrived in South Bend -- and the morning papers carrying the stunning news landed on America's doorsteps on April 1, 1931 -- most Americans already knew Rockne was gone. Radio bulletins had filled the nation's airwaves; special editions of afternoon papers had been published coast to coast. On streets, at places of employment, speakeasies -- wherever Americans gathered in the afternoon of March 31, 1931, they asked each other, "Did you hear about Rock?"
It was similar to Americans' reactions when the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight other people, including his daughter Gianna and two other 13-year-old girls, went down in late January. Doesn't that seem long ago?
Religious faith doesn't prevent such tragedies any more than it stops the spread of infectious diseases that turn into pandemics. But it can help people cope. Kobe Bryant's loved ones and fellow parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church took some measure of solace in knowing that Bryant and his daughter had attended Mass and taken Holy Communion on the morning of their fateful helicopter ride. The last memory that Julie Hermes, a member of the parish, had of Kobe was the heartwarming sight of him spending time with his children at the church. "He was showering them with cupcakes, and he put them in car seats and buckled them in so carefully," she told a local television station. What immediately came to Bishop Timothy Freyer's mind was how Bryant, out of consideration for other worshipers, "sat in the back of the church so that his presence would not distract people from focusing on Christ's presence."
Knute Rockne was also a man of faith and, as Herbert Hoover poignantly acknowledged on April 1, 1931, a man with a family -- as were the seven other men who died with him.
Spencer Goldthwaite, a young advertising executive from New York, was flying to California to visit his parents in Pasadena. According to Jerry Brondfield, author of "Knute Rockne: The Coach, the Man, the Legend," another passenger, wealthy Chicagoan H.J. Christen, was flying to the West Coast for a much-anticipated reconciliation with his estranged wife. Also aboard were John Happer, a friend of Rockne's who was going to Southern California to open a new store in the Wilson Sporting Goods chain; C.A. Robrecht, a produce merchant from Wheeling, W.Va., who was on his first plane trip; Waldo B. Miller, of Los Angeles, an executive of the Aetna Insurance Co. who was going home to his family after a sales meeting back East; and pilots Herman "Jess" Mathias and Robert Fry, who had once made headlines when he crash-landed into a war zone in China and talked his way out.
But Providence's timing is not our own. Rockne had given his players a few days off from spring drills to observe Easter week, and had taken an overnight train from Chicago to Kansas City in hopes of briefly seeing his two sons at the Kansas City railroad station.
The train was late, however, and so he left by cab for the airport without seeing his boys. The crash site was gruesome, but witnesses reported one image they never forgot. One of the men, all of whom were killed on impact, was still clutching his rosary. The coroner confirmed that man was Rockne.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.