Man who tended to Rockne memorial defined spirit of Notre Dame

The news finally hit sometime early Wednesday morning. Unable to sleep, David Kil couldn't stop thinking about the man he had met 35 years earlier, the man who was no longer here.

He was on his way to Chicago from Colorado that day in 1973 when he pulled off the highway near Cottonwood Falls, Kan., and tried to find the site of the 1931 plane crash that killed Knute Rockne. But the Notre Dame graduate found more than a stone monument. He found a new friend. A new member of the Irish family. And a man who would dedicate the rest of his life to remembering Rockne and the other seven passengers who were aboard Transcontinental and Western Express Flight 599 on March 31, 1931.

Easter Heathman was washing his pickup truck in his yard that morning when Kil pulled up to ask directions to the monument. The two started talking and before Kil knew it, he was a passenger in Heathman's previously clean truck, splashing through mud puddles on his way to see the memorial.

Heathman would give more than 1,000 such tours in the latter years of his life, becoming a hero to the Notre Dame Nation as the laid-back, easygoing farmer who warmly welcomed any and all strangers who wanted to learn about the crash. In 2006, the university gave Heathman an honorary monogram, an honor bestowed upon only some 200 individuals, the likes of whom include former presidents, popes and Heisman Trophy winners.

On Tuesday night, the 90-year-old Heathman died due to complications from pneumonia.

"I've got to go back to the monument myself," said Kil, who will represent Notre Dame at this weekend's funeral service. "But when I get back there, it'll be like I'm going to a place without a soul. It's a loss that's truly inexplicable.

"Easter had a demeanor that portrayed gentleness, goodness and integrity. Everything about him was pleasant and caring. We need more of those people in this world, not less."

Heathman was one week shy of his 14th birthday that foggy and cold March morning when the Fokker 10 fell from the sky and landed in a pasture a mile and a half from his family's home. Before that day, he had never heard of Knute Rockne. He was unaware of the Fighting Irish. And he knew very little about college football.

The more he learned about what Rockne meant to so many others, the more he set out to learn about Rockne. The morning he met Kil sparked a late-life renaissance, prompting Heathman to become the unofficial caretaker of the memorial at the crash site. He trimmed weeds, cut the grass and even built a fence to keep cattle away.

"I was kind of ashamed," he once said. "Eight men lost their lives and they were kind of forgotten. It was the right thing to do."

The more Heathman learned about Rockne, the more visits he received from Notre Dame fans, the more he fell in love with the Irish. It is no surprise that he wore his monogram jacket to his 90th birthday party last April. Or that the last time Kansas professor and close friend Bernie Kish saw him, a few weeks ago, Heathman was wearing his Notre Dame cap while holding on to a football signed by Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz and Charlie Weis.

"He became a real Notre Dame football fan the past 25 years," said Kish, the former director of the College Football Hall of Fame. "Watching the Irish play on Saturday afternoon, that was the highlight of his week. The last time I saw him, he kept telling me how all this criticism of Charlie is not right. And that Notre Dame was going to win again."

On Wednesday, the "Rock's House" message board at NDNation.com overflowed with emotional tributes to Heathman. Seemingly everyone had a story about the time they ventured to the middle of Kansas, knocked on the door of the stranger they had been sent to see and in a few minutes found themselves at the foot of the monument, getting a firsthand story about what happened from one of the first people on the scene.

Wrote "Other_guy": "He took me to the spot where he found Rockne's body … he had placed rocks on the spot in his unassuming way … my time was his time."

Wrote "NDL99": "If you're looking for a definition of the Spirit of Notre Dame, this is it."

Wrote "Cash": "People of considerable accomplishment with lots of flashy items on their resumes and CVs living in relative luxury in the glitz of the modern world were universally mesmerized by this simple and unassuming country gentleman who spent almost every day of his 90 years just off a lonely road in the middle of nowhere. I was lucky to have known him."

As much as it was Rockne's death that put Heathman's home on the map, he had just as much compassion for the families of the other seven victims of that crash, believed to be the first commercial air disaster in the nation's history.

Terry Happer Scheier lost her grandfather John that day. And though her family rarely talked about the accident, she was later able to learn everything that had happened firsthand from Heathman.

"He was kind of like a grandpa to us," Happer Scheier said. "I was amazed by the man. He was so wonderful to our family and would fill all of us in on what happened. We'd visit with nieces and nephews and every year he'd remember all of us. That place won't be the same without him."

As the Internet grew in the 1990s and word spread that there was a kind and gentle man willing to give tours of the Rockne crash site, more and more people came. They came from all over the country, often offering Heathman money as appreciation for his help. But he refused to accept it. What they didn't know is they were paying the aging man with something far greater than currency.

"It was his reason to be," said Sue Ann Brown, Heathman's daughter. "When you get older like that, there are so many things you can't do, you cherish the things you can do. And he always had something to look forward to if somebody was coming to visit the monument."

But now that Heathman is gone, what will happen to the memorial he honored and helped protect for almost a quarter century? Kil said he remembers a dinner with Heathman, his son and a couple grandchildren a few years ago when grandpa wondered who was going to pick up the slack when he was gone. Heathman even recorded audio and video clips of himself explaining what happened that day so the story could be preserved.

"That's the big thing -- who's going to do this now," Kil said. "It was in the back of his mind. I'm sure we will all figure out something, but there's nothing like talking to a person who was actually there and could remember. That's something that can't be replaced."

Sue Ann Brown said her husband and brother are going to do everything they can to help continue the tours to the site. In addition, the family is trying to raise money to open a Rockne Museum in Chase County. A Colorado man already has offered a fully restored Studebaker that Rockne once owned if a proper museum could be put in place to display it. In lieu of flowers, the family asks individuals to make a donation to the Rockne Museum care of the Brown, Bennett and Alexander Funeral Home in Cottonwood Falls.

"We've been fundraising, trying to get this museum built in Dad's lifetime," Brown said. "Unfortunately it didn't happen. But maybe now we can do it in his honor."

Services for Heathman will be held Saturday at the Bazaar schoolhouse, the same location where he organized the remembrances for the 60th, 65th, 70th and 75th anniversaries of the crash. Brown said the family plans to spread some of her dad's ashes at the monument site as well.

And there are those who believe Easter Heathman somehow, somewhere, finally may have been able to meet the man he spent much of his life remembering. Kish said Heathman would be thrilled to finally stand before the man he had learned so much about. Kil said there's no question the two would hit it off and become the best friends. And Brown had one thought on the possible long-awaited meeting between her dad and Knute Rockne.

"I'd like to think they'd have a shot of whiskey," she said. "Or maybe a glass of wine."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.