Sept. 30, 2010:
Gary King is exceedingly humble when asked about becoming, at 16, the head of his family. When both of your parents perish in what was then the worst plane crash ever involving a U.S. sports team and you're the only male in a house with six sisters, though, you are - whether you want to admit it or not - the man of the house.
"I think it's a bit of a stretch, calling me the man of the house,” King said Wednesday, the day before he was to reunite with his sisters in Wichita, Kan., to mark the 40th anniversary of the crash that claimed the lives of their parents and 29 others.
His sisters - Lynne, Teri, Lori, Lisa, Juli and Dina - were 18, 13, 10, 7, 6 and 4, respectively, when their parents, Kansas State Rep. Raymond E. King, 48, and Yvonne King, 41, died Oct. 2, 1970. Lynne was already away at college. Their parents hadn't planned to make the trip to see Wichita State University play Utah State University, but someone canceled, and the school invited them to come along.
"I was walking down the hallway at school, and someone made a comment about Wichita State's football team,” King recalled in his Morrisville office at the U.S. headquarters of Netherlands-based Redwood Software. The Shockers were winless at the time, "so I thought they were saying something derogatory about the team. They said there'd been a plane crash.”
King lived only minutes away, but by the time he ran home, many cars were at his house. "I knew something was wrong," he said.
It would take several hours before the King children knew exactly how wrong everything was.
"There were two planes, and we didn't know for a long time which one our parents were on," he said. Then, they learned there were survivors, but they didn't know how many or who they were.
Upon learning that their parents had died when the twin-engine prop plane slammed into a mountain near Silver Plume, Colo., King feared he and his sisters would be split up. It never happened.
'Reverse foster home'
Instead, they finished growing up in what King laughingly describes as a "reverse foster home."
"The young couple that was coming to baby-sit us that weekend ended up staying eight months," he said, and a series of other sitters rotated in over the years and looked after them. "Because my dad had done some good planning with insurance ... we were able to be raised together and stay together."
They've stayed together over the years, even though their lives have taken them to several states and they're raising their own families. King and his wife, Connie, have four children: David, Matthew, Amy and Michael. David played for Barton College's national championship basketball team in 2007, and Michael played baseball at Athens Drive High School and for the West Raleigh team that won the national Cal Ripken Jr. Championship in 2004. As what he called a "sort of sports-crazed family," the Kings have spent a lot of time in the air.
Does that bother him? I asked.
"Not at all. Never been a concern," he said. "My wife and I love flying."
When they fly to Kansas today, it will be the first time in about a decade that King has attended the annual observance of the crash and the first time all seven siblings have been there together.
"It's not that I need to go. I like going for the sake of seeing other people I know and love and seeing people who've experienced the same thing we have," he said. "All seven of us are going. We're all coming together" for the 40th anniversary.
Each year on the anniversary, a wreath is placed at a campus memorial in honor of the players, administrators and boosters who died.
Saturday's observance comes just weeks before the 40th anniversary of a more famous air tragedy involving a college football team.
On Nov. 14, 1970, a plane carrying Marshall University's Thundering Herd home from a 17-14 loss to East Carolina University crashed into a gully just short of the runway at Tri-State Airport outside Huntington, W. Va. All 75 people aboard, including 37 players, died. The crash, which remains the worst disaster involving a U.S. sports team, was immortalized in the 2006 movie, "We Are Marshall."
As his family gathers to remember and pay tribute to the Wichita State victims, King said he doesn't want the legacy of the crash to be one of woe about seven orphaned children, but one of hope and love.
"So many people want to see themselves as victims, and everybody has gone through things. ... The compelling story our family has to share is how we turned out. We have so much to be thankful for. Each one of us has married a wonderful person - my six sisters have six wonderful husbands who are very strong, Christian people."
In the days, weeks, months and years after the crash, King said, "What kept me going was that loving care for my sisters. I was still a teenager, and I had my moments of feeling sorry for myself, but I knew I had to take care of my sisters."
Sounds like the man of the house to me.