The tale of Gary King and his siblings has never been one of woe, at least not to hear him tell it.
He made that point clear to me 11 years ago when I first interviewed him on the 40th anniversary of the plane crash that left his six sisters and him orphans. They ranged in age from 18 to four.
King was 16, the only male in the family when his parents, Ray and Yvonne King, were among 31 people killed when the chartered plane carrying officials and supporters of Wichita State University’s football team crashed on Oct. 2nd, 1970.
Yet he pooh-pooed my attempt to paint him as “the man of the house.”
“That’s a stretch,” he laughed at the time.
In recent years, far from a tale of woe, that sorrowful anniversary has been one of weddings for family and friends.
The university has annually commemorated the crash that was, until the Marshall University football team’s plane crashed a month later – killing 75 people – the nation’s worst plane disaster involving a U.S. sports team.
For many of those years, King, of Cary, and his sisters have participated.
Except five years ago, the 45th anniversary. “That’s the weekend my daughter decided she would get married,” King laughed when we spoke Saturday, the 51st anniversary of the crash.
And this year. On this anniversary, King, a minister, was preparing to officiate at the wedding of a family friend in Chapel Hill.
Is the crash, I asked, something that is so innately a part of their lives that they never talk about it – or do they talk about it incessantly? (I’ve certainly thought about it incessantly since meeting King, thought about what kind of psychic scars such a tragedy could inflict and the fortitude it took to keep a family of young children together.)
“We still talk about it,” he said, “but it’s not like it dominates our thinking. We’re a really tight-knit family and we just love being together. It’s like the first thing this morning - I wrote a text to my sweet sisters: “Thinking of you and praying just a little more on this day. Fifty-one years. We have so much to be thankful for. God has really blessed us in spite of the tragedy.”
Covid restrictions meant a smaller commemoration last year, the 50th anniversary, but it also meant, he said, “that I had more time to be at home this year.”
While at home, he went through his father’s papers and rediscovered a copy of a letter his father had dictated to his secretary hours before the crash, and he used the internet to find the person to whom it was written.
President Nixon had spoken at Kansas State University in Hutchinson two weeks earlier, and a wire service story on the event focused, many felt, unduly on what they called the 50 or so protesters instead of the president’s 15,000 supporters.
Ray King, a two-term Republican state representative, wrote the letter to Frank Edmondson, a radio news reporter, expressing his appreciation for his commentary extolling the president and criticizing the wire service for – to paraphrase my favorite songwriter, Johnny Mercer – accentuating the negative.
Ray King, in his letter, also complimented reporter Matt Letts’s story about Edmondson. When Gary King internetted and found Letts, he was stunned that he still had the letter. On his visit to commemorate the 50th anniversary, Gary met with his father's former secretary, who gave him a hand-written note to her from his father, written later that night.
“Who," King asked incredulously when we spoke, "puts a time stamp on a letter (as his father had done, noting the time: 2:45 a.m.)… and what 20-year-old keeps a letter for 50 years?”
My guess is the kind of father who does enough financial planning to ensure that his family will be taken care of – and can remain intact in the event of an unimaginable tragedy - and the kind of 20-year-old, as Letts was, who knows that one day the letter would mean something to a family that has endured an unimaginable tragedy.
King in 2020 wrote a book – The Unsigned Letter: 50 Years Later – about that letter and others his father wrote, and the correspondences resulting from them.
The book is dedicated to his “oldest and wisest sister,” Mary Lynne King Boyer, who died in 2018.
To receive a copy of the book, send $10 to 117 Hassellwood Drive, Cary, N.C., 27518.