Knute Rockne's funeral and the dawn of a new American experience

ByIvan Maisel ESPN logo
Thursday, April 4, 2019

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Men and women of a certain age can tell you where they were when they saw John John Kennedy salute his father's casket in 1963 or when Princess Diana died in 1997. Even now, when the internet has diverted American viewing habits into many streams, the funerals last year of John McCain and former president George H.W. Bush continued the tradition of national communal mourning.

That tradition began on April 4, 1931, almost without anyone realizing it, when CBS Radio broadcast the funeral of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, who died four days earlier in the crash of a commercial airliner on a Kansas prairie. There certainly had been other deaths that Americans mourned as a nation. But the death of Rockne came at the dawn of a communications revolution. The emotional wallop delivered by his death landed harder, its force magnified, because Americans experienced it simultaneously, in New York as in Chicago, in Des Moines as in Los Angeles. That had never happened.

The tragedy was of such import that it not only united a nation in mourning. It also changed the way planes were built and led to new regulations in the way the government investigated and reported the findings of transportation disasters, reporting that we have come to expect today.

Papers around the nation reflected the depth of mourning in which the nation engaged. The Tulsa World reprinted "O Captain! My Captain!," the poem Walt Whitman wrote upon the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The Boston Globe editorialized that because of Rockne, "football has become a different game, thrilling a continent for three months every year."

Bill Cunningham, a columnist in the Boston Post known for casting a skeptical eye amid the gee-whiz writing popular in the day, wrote as if he were truly grieving.

"(F)ew men of recent years, whatever their past or whatever their station," Cunningham wrote, "have received a more beautiful and memorable tribute of a nation's admiration, affection and sudden very definite sorrow than did this man who was neither statesman, warrior, public servant nor prelate -- who was only a football coach."

A 'nation-wide' radio broadcast

On the day before Easter in 1931, at 3 p.m. central time, the CBS broadcast of the Rockne funeral came on the air.

CBS didn't have the only microphone at the Church of the Sacred Heart on the South Bend, Indiana, campus. WGN in Chicago and WSBT, a local station, also broadcast the service. But CBS, at the time an upstart network not four years old, sent the sounds of Rockne's service to every one of the network's 79 affiliates -- or, as The New York Times described it, "nation-wide." This concept was so new that in some lexicons it needed the hyphen.

Commercial radio had been alive barely a decade, and journalists grappled with how to describe it. The Des Moines Tribune-Capital previewed the broadcast of the Rockne funeral as "a national hookup for a word picture of the services."

The broadcast is not mentioned in the history books of American radio. The import of the broadcast could not fully be understood for several decades, until the ubiquity of instant communication transformed American life into a shared experience. We laugh together, we engage together, and when a prominent person dies, we cry together.

As the historian David E. Kyvig wrote, "(F)ar more than any previous systems of communication, radio and the movies drew Americans together into a new and common culture."

The public reaction to the loss of Rockne threatened the health of the nascent airline industry in general and TWA in particular. The demand to know why the plane plummeted to the ground put significant pressure on the federal government, which reflected the pressure onto the plane manufacturers. From this disaster came not only the development of the all-metal aircraft but also a 1934 federal law that required the probable cause of an air crash to be made public.

Where news was concerned, radio brought an immediacy that the movies could not. To see footage of the crash site and the funeral, the public had to wait until the newsreels arrived in the theaters the following week. But radio could tell the story immediately. It had begun to insert its presence into everyday life. So had the telephone. Air travel had just begun to bring the country closer together. The ramifications of all this became clear, the meaning real, in the tragic first week of April 1931.

"Seldom, if ever," an unbylined story reported in the Kansas City Star on April 1, the day after the crash, "has the death of a man who was not engaged in public service or in any official capacity provoked such widespread expressions of grief as that of the Notre Dame coach."

If there is a recording of Rockne's funeral, or of any of the radio tributes to Rockne that aired the week of his death, they are well hidden. Much of this story is derived from the written journalism of the day. That work during the week of Rockne's funeral is invaluable both as historical record and emotional thermometer.

Of the three national radio networks, Columbia, as CBS was known in its early days, took a chance on broadcasting a funeral. Columbia took the chances that upstarts take. NBC, which started in 1926, so ruled the airwaves that it split into two networks, the Red and the Blue. When NBC aired the first nationwide broadcast of any sort -- the Washington, D.C., parade honoring aviator Charles Lindbergh in June 1927 -- CBS was three months shy of being born.

Bill Paley, the 27-year-old scion of a Philadelphia cigarmaker, bought Columbia in 1928. He got all of 16 affiliates. By 1931, Paley had increased that number fourfold. Columbia broadcast 415 special events that year, many more than the 256 by NBC on both of its networks. That's because NBC didn't need special events. In the 1930-31 radio season, 24 of the top 25 shows ran on NBC.

David Halberstam, the late journalist and bestselling historian, studied CBS in his 1979 book "The Powers That Be." He wrote, "(M)any of the great moments in broadcasting, first in radio and then in television, have come almost involuntarily; when a particular network was behind in programming and had a weak schedule, it had little to lose and therefore might, for a time, emphasize public service. Boosting news and public affairs became the cheapest way to forge ahead and build a reputation."

That's what Paley did. He hired Ted Husing to broadcast sporting events, and Husing broadcast a lot of them. If NBC owned the ratings during the week, Columbia made the weekend competitive, no small thanks to Husing.

The nascent radio networks had just begun to broadcast sporting events and political conventions "nation-wide." NBC's top announcer, Graham McNamee, brought a sense of excitement to the microphone that helped sell radio to the masses. Four years earlier, he had been the on-air talent for the Lindbergh parade. But McNamee didn't know a lot about sports. He developed a reputation for inaccuracy. Sportswriter Ring Lardner once said, "I attended a doubleheader today: the game I saw and the one that McNamee announced."

In the 1929 Rose Bowl, Roy "Wrong Way" Riegels picked up a Georgia Tech fumble for California and raced toward the wrong goal line. As McNamee described the action, some listeners thought, "There he goes again."

Husing, meanwhile, had a sonorous voice and an extensive vocabulary, and he loved to use them to deliver a crisp, accurate broadcast. He met with football coaches extensively during the offseason and before games. Husing and Rockne became good friends; one biographer of Husing called Rockne "the big brother that Husing never had."

When the Fighting Irish concluded the 1930 season, their second consecutive undefeated season, with a 27-0 victory at USC on Dec. 6, Rockne planned to stay in Los Angeles for a few days to relax and work on his next films. Husing contacted Rockne and asked him to come to New York to serve as his analyst on the broadcast of the Army-Navy game the following Saturday.

Rockne told him, "For you, Ted, I'll fly out and back."

'It's as safe as any other method'

Rockne believed in airplanes as the future of American travel. He loved the speed and convenience. He could leave the Notre Dame campus and get to Los Angeles within 24 hours. Think of it! A train would take three days.

"With a good pilot and a good plane, it's as safe as any other method," Rockne said, according to biographer Ray Robinson.

Rockne might have been what we now call an early adopter, but he wasn't that far ahead of the American public. The number of commercial passengers in America in 1930 topped 417,000, a 141 percent increase over 1929.

Rockne had left his family vacationing in Florida to return to work. On March 30, 1931, he took the sleeper train from Chicago to Kansas City and, on the morning of March 31, boarded a TWA flight to Los Angeles. He would stay for two days, filled with meetings and speeches. He planned to sign a $50,000 contract to make a football film. One report said that both Northwestern coach Dick Hanley and Rockne's business manager, Christy Walsh, intended to travel with him. Both decided not to go. Hanley's wife believed it wasn't safe.

The pilot and co-pilot had six passengers. The plane went down east of Wichita on a farm near Bazaar, Kansas.

The Associated Press reported the story around 1 p.m. Eastern time, referring to the plane as a "merchant liner," as if it were an airborne boat. A news bulletin on a Chicago radio station informed Rockne's mother and two of his sisters of the crash. The Tribune reported that his mother, without identifying herself, called the paper and asked if Rockne had died. At some point, Tribune operators, overwhelmed by callers, began answering the phone, "Yes, it's true about Rockne."

At midnight, 11 hours after AP first sent the story, newsboys in New York subways were still yelling, "Rockne dead!"

Francis Wallace, a New York newspaperman and a friend of Rockne's, was vacationing in Miami, near where the Rockne family was. After Wallace heard the news, he drove to the house where Bonnie Rockne and the couple's two youngest children were staying. Telegrams of condolence had already begun to stack up outside the front door. On the top, Wallace saw one that Rockne had sent from Kansas City:


The plane crashed about 30 miles southwest of Emporia, Kansas. William Allen White, the publisher and editor of The Emporia Gazette, had a voice that extended far beyond the reach of an eastern Kansas weekly. White had been a kingmaker in the Republican Party for a generation, a friend of presidents and a talented wordsmith. In 1925, the future novelist Edna Ferber profiled White in a three-month-old magazine called The New Yorker.

"One can imagine a national political convention without an American flag; without nominating speeches; without a gavel; without a New York State majority; without a temperature of 96 degrees. But a national political convention without William Allen White in the press section is unthinkable," Ferber wrote.

White and his son, William L. White, held forth on matters large and small from Emporia, which sits about halfway between Wichita and Kansas City, pretty much on the flight path of Rockne's TWA flight. The Gazette covered the crash in consecutive issues in early April 1931. The writing is profound and eloquent; the reporting, deep and descriptive. There is no byline. The work has been attributed to each of them:

"So died the great Viking of football on a high hill overlooking a prairie, at the crossroads of the old forgotten stage road and the new highway of the air, and at his bier keeping vigil on the hill top stood, not the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, but four sun tanned horsemen of the plains forcing back from the tangled wreckage a gaping curious crowd.

"Swiftly and painlessly he passed from a land of far horizons into a horizon without bounds."

White wrote for a weekly paper, but his reporting carried a glimpse of the communications revolution. Three telephone operators in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the Gazette reported, sat at their switchboard, "talking to Universal City (California), Chicago and New York, and listened to grief-stricken voices of fathers and wives in Chicago, California and Connecticut as they asked falteringly for the details which they dreaded to hear, and pleaded for some kind of hope when there was none to give."

Transcontinental telephone service didn't begin until 1915. The minimum price of a coast-to-coast call in 1927 was $5.50 at a time when the average railway worker made $25 per week. In 1931, it remained a luxury, a last resort -- a matter of life and death.

All of which is to say, in the wake of the plane crash that killed Rockne, long-distance calling became news itself. The operators, the Gazette reported, handled more than 400 calls. The exact number was a guess. But W.W. Finney of Emporia Telephone estimated that $2,000 -- $33,000 in today's money -- was spent on the calls and another $600 ($9,200 today) on telegraph fees. Six relief telegraph operators rushed to handle the onslaught of telegrams -- 30,000 more words than normal -- in and out of the area.

Pilgrimages to South Bend

When the Santa Fe Railroad train carrying Rockne's body arrived at the Dearborn Street Station in Chicago at 7:45 p.m. on April 1, it found a crowd one paper estimated to be 10,000 people. Rockne's top assistant, Heartley "Hunk" Anderson, who would replace him as head coach, threw open the door of the baggage car.

"So tightly did the crowd wedge around the truck that movement became impossible," the Chicago Tribune reported. "Policemen shouted, women lost their shoes, and derbies were crushed until, after two or three minutes, the cortge got started up the platform to the waiting motor truck."

Fifteen past presidents of the Notre Dame Club of Chicago joined Anderson and assistant coach Jack Chevigny to transfer the casket to the truck. Someone laid a floral blanket over the casket. As rose petals fell to the street, onlookers picked them up, perhaps as keepsakes. Behind the casket, escorted by a close friend of Rockne's, walked his two older children, boys who attended boarding school in Kansas City. Rockne had hoped to see them before his plane took off, but they missed each other by a matter of minutes.

The men wedged themselves against the casket in the pressing crowd, "a street black with people," the United Press wrote. The air smelled of flash powder, which ignited the bulbs that lit the scene for the newspapermen's nighttime photography.

"Judge Walter Steffen, coach of Carnegie Tech, stood bareheaded with tears coursing down his face as the body was sent on its way," the AP reported.

The truck transported the casket from the Dearborn Street Station to the LaSalle Street Station, four blocks away, where the New York Central line would transport Rockne's body home. The train arrived in South Bend at 11:08 p.m. A crowd of several thousand awaited at the station. The crowd might have been larger had the train not arrived 19 minutes early.

The next day, April 2, the AP reported, "The funeral, although simple, promised to be one of the largest in American history."

Bonnie Rockne and the two children returned home from Florida on Thursday. Mrs. Rockne refused to delay the service until the following week, after Easter and when the Notre Dame students would have returned to campus from vacation. She decided the funeral would not be open to the public, but she put the word out that she hoped as many of Rockne's former players as possible would attend.

And so the pilgrimages to South Bend began. Coaches, former players, politicians and friends from around the country came to the Rockne home at 1417 E. Wayne Avenue, a newly built Tudor in the Sunnymede neighborhood. The empty lot adjacent to the home became the nesting ground for the overflow of hundreds of floral arrangements for which there was no room in the house. By Friday, a radio microphone was set up in the Rockne front yard so the celebrities calling on the Rocknes could be interviewed.

New York City mayor Jimmy Walker delayed his return home from a 17-day vacation in Palm Springs to stop in South Bend and pay a condolence call. Philadelphia mayor Harry Mackey, accompanied by Villanova coach Harry Stuhldreher, one of the Four Horsemen on Rockne's 1924 team, traveled overnight and arrived in time for the funeral Saturday. Among the honorary pallbearers were future Hall of Fame coaches Pop Warner of Stanford, Dan McGugin of Vanderbilt, Howard Jones of USC and Jock Sutherland of Pittsburgh.

On Friday morning, the McGann Funeral Home transported the casket to the Rockne home, where Rockne lay in state from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturday, one hour before the funeral service. A rotating honor guard of two Fighting Irish players from the 1930 team, Rockne's last, stood with it.

The New York Times reported, "Representatives of the Columbia Broadcasting Company arrived today (Friday) to arrange for the broadcast of the rites. Columbia will try to make the broadcasts international, sending from Chicago to both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts in order to reach Europe and Asia. It will be the most extensive broadcast of its kind in history."

The decision to broadcast the funeral across the nation forced Columbia to preempt the 30-minute musical show "Saturday Syncopators" and move the show featuring Ann Leaf, the 4-foot-11 "Mighty Mite of the three-control organ," half an hour earlier than normal. Leaf wasn't preempted, maybe because she had a national following. She received fan letters that year from the Ohio State Penitentiary, where 40 prisoners made her appointment listening every night.

The church held 1,400 mourners, admitted by invitation only. Some 5,000 additional mourners stood outside on the cold, early spring Saturday, awaiting the arrival of the funeral procession of more than 100 cars from the Rockne home. Notre Dame placed speakers outside the church to allow mourners on campus to hear the service.

At the top of the 3 p.m. hour, the stores in South Bend and nearby Mishawaka closed. All trains on the Chicago, South Shore and South Bend railroads halted for one minute. Walter Fitzmaurice, writing in the Chicago Tribune, said that as the cortge reached campus, the bell in the Sacred Heart spire began to toll every 30 seconds. When the pallbearers carried Rockne's casket into the church, Fitzmaurice wrote, the only sounds came from the church bell "and the voice of radio announcers describing the scene."

Four black-and-white streamers ballooned down from the high ceiling in front of the altar and back up. Radio listeners heard the university choir. Olaf Bernts, the Norwegian consul in Chicago who attended as personal representative of King Haakon VI, placed a wreath beside the casket of Rockne, whose family moved to Chicago from Norway when he was a small boy.

Rev. Charles L. O'Donnell, the president of Notre Dame, gave Rockne's eulogy.

"In this holy week of Christ's passion and death, there has occurred a tragic event which accounts for our presence here today," Rev. O'Donnell said. "Knute Rockne is dead. And who was he?

"Ask the president of the United States, who dispatched a personal message of tribute to his memory and comfort to his bereaved family.

"Ask the king of Norway, who sends a special delegation as his personal representatives to this solemn service.

"Ask the several state legislatures, now sitting, that have passed resolutions of sympathy and condolence.

"Ask the university senates, the civic bodies and societies without number; ask the bishops, the clergy, the religious orders, that have sent assurances of sympathy and prayers; ask the thousands of newspaper men, whose labor of love in his memory has stirred a reading public of 125 million Americans; ask men and women from every walk of life; ask the children, the boys of America, ask any and all of these, who was this man whose death has struck the nations with dismay and has everywhere bowed heads in grief?"

Father O'Donnell said something else worth noting.

"Of necessity, we are few in number in this hallowed place, though thousands are without the doors. But we represent millions of men and women like ourselves who are here in spirit, in the very spirit of these solemn services, and listening all over America to these holy rites."

Millions listened, in the privacy of their homes and in the comfort of their friends. A crowd of 100 men at the Elks Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, sat before the radio in communal silence. After the ceremony, the Rev. Charles E. Pettit of Bloomington (Illinois) Methodist Church wrote to WGN to compliment Ryan, its host. "No more colorful, appropriate, and beautiful English have I ever heard than from your announcer," Pettit said.

After the service, the funeral party left the church in another cortge for Highland Cemetery, a couple miles from campus. Mourners lined the streets all the way. Both NBC and Columbia aired shows honoring Rockne that Saturday night.

A few days later, the Catholic Transcript reported, "By permission of Coach Rockne's widow, the services in Sacred Heart Church were broadcast throughout the United States and countries abroad, the music of the choir and the organ and the deeply moving words of Father O'Donnell making the occasion one of solemnity and sorrow for radio listeners as well as for those attending the rites."

An American tradition had begun.