Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 25
“THREE MEMBERS OF EAST HIGH XC TEAM KILLED IN CRASH” was the headline of the column on the front page of Monday’s Iowa City newspaper, a picture of the championship group on the riser in Marshalltown, each with an index finger raised.
“East High School Assistant Coach Matt Wilson, Individual State Cross Country Champion Danny Skogstad, and All-State runner Brian Wilkinson were killed in a two-car crash Saturday afternoon at a 4-way stop on Highway 6 near Brooklyn Iowa. Jeff Ecker, of Brooklyn was charged by State Police with failure to yield and running a stop sign at the intersection north of town.
Ecker’s Ford F-150 smashed into the side of the East High van driven by Head Coach John Raffensperger, the impact and subsequent fire killing two team members and the assistant coach. Officers noted Ecker smelled of alcohol but didn’t comment on whether that was the cause of the accident.
The East High cross country squad won the State Title in Marshalltown earlier in the day, taking the top team spot by two points, winning for the 5th year in a row. Assistant Coach Matt Wilson was a 2-time State Champion in cross country, winning titles in 1975 and 1976. Brian is the son of Michael and Doris Wilkinson and Danny the son of Fred and Dorothy Skogstad.
Information on a memorial service at East High will be announced on Monday.”
There were seven chairs to the side of the podium, four filled by Coach Raffensperger and members of the championship team, the three empty ones adorned with a gold t-shirt on the chair backs. Mr. Wilkinson stood at the podium and stared at the notecard, taking a deep breath before he began. The upper and lower bleachers of the gymnasium were full as he scanned the crowd.
“There are no words to express the sadness I feel for the loss of these three.” He gestured to the empty chairs. “We lost three great ones last weekend. Three families who lost the most precious gift they’ve ever been given – a beautiful son. The Wilson family lost a spouse, a father, and a brother who loved by them all very dearly. The Skogstads a son and his siblings a brother who brought great joy to their lives. Doris and I lost a treasure that we can never replace, and Mike Junior a brother that worshiped him.” He paused and wiped tears from his eyes.
“I remember the first East High State Title as though it was yesterday.” He pursed his lips. “Matt Wilson diving at the finish line in 1974 as though he had wings, leading us to the 1st Cross Country Championship in school history. I can picture Danny at the East High Invitational a year later, zigzagging into the finish line for the win.” He paused and smiled softly. “The first freshman to capture the MVC title in cross country. And I’ll always remember my son Brian, only a junior, finishing 6th at this year’s cross country meet in Marshalltown.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” He looked around the crowd. “None of their success would have occurred without lots of help from parents,” Smiling at Mr. and Mrs. Skogstad. “And siblings, and guardians,” He turned to Ashley, Alice, and Tom Johnson. “And friends, and coaches, and teachers, and neighbors.” He took a deep breath.
“I’ve always felt it was important to honor great individuals like Matt, Danny, and Brian, men who passed away before their time. They were integral to the East High success.” He smiled at his wife. “So today Doris and I want to establish two awards. Ashley and Alice, would you come up to announce this first one?” Mr. Wilkinson handed Ashley the plaque which would be in the trophy case and Alice a notecard and the individual plaque as she approached the podium with tears in her eyes.
Alice took a deep breath.
“The Matt Wilson Most Valuable Athlete Award will be given annually to the team’s most valued cross country runner. The one that has shown leadership and contributed to the team’s success.” Alice paused. “The 1978 award goes to Danny Skogstad.” She tearfully smiled. “Mr. and Mrs. Skogstad, would you please come up to receive his plaque.”
Solemn clapping filled the gymnasium, Ashley and Alice hugging the pair before they returned to their seats. Mr. Wilkinson motioned for his wife to come up. He lowered the microphone for Doris and stepped back.
“The Danny Skogstad and Brian Wilkinson Memorial Scholarship will be awarded each year to one senior on the team pursuing a college degree. Mike and I want to make sure no runner misses out on an opportunity for a better life. The $500 stipend is established in memory of Brian and Danny.”
Mr. Wilkinson stopped at Tom Johnson’s house after the ceremony, sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee on the side table, suit coat over the back of the folding chair, his face haggard after the taxing ceremony. He looked around the room at faces and pursed his lips.
“Liz, Alice, Ashley, and Tom. I can’t tell you how much this tragedy has hurt Doris and me, but I know you are also reeling from the event just as much as our family is.” His head dropped and then he looked up. “Two things I want to tell you and then I’ll head home. It’s not the way I would have it, but always take solace in the fact that Matt will rest beside his mother. The plot is already paid for.”
He looked at the floor and rubbed his eyes.
“And then I’ll tell you exactly what I told Matt. I want all of you to promise.” He looked around the room at each face. “That you will always come to me if you need help – whether it’s financial or legal. I made a vow to Mary Ann that,” He had to pause until he could control his emotions. “…that will never be broken.” He waited for nods and then turned to Liz, rubbing away the tears. “And Liz, though you have lost the love of your life, you will never want for anything material – a roof over your head, money for groceries, a babysitter…” He smiled. “Although it will probably be Doris.” Everyone chuckled. “That’s all for now. We’ll talk more later. I’m worn out.”
He stood and nodded at the faces smiling at him, bending over to kiss Matt Jr on the forehead before he walked home.