In Memorium

"There was double tragedy in the face of the figure skaters who died Wednesday [February 15, 1961] in the crash of their jet airliner -- a kind of tragedy only the very young can know.

Their past was short indeed. They had given it willingly, to long hours and days and years of practice. They had forfeited much of chilidhood's normal playtime.

And now there is no future . . . .

For each, the story was the same.

The past that seemed so short was longer than they knew.

It was all they would ever have."

-- The Burbank Daily Review, February 16, 1961

The 1960 VIII Olympic Winter Games were held in Squaw Valley, California, a brand new venue which had been constructed near Truckee, California. The events were held from February 18 to 28, 1960 and many events were videotaped to be shown on television in prime time by CBS. Commentators included Walter Cronkite, Chris Schenkel, Dick Button and Bud Palmer.

Canadian pair skaters Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul won the first of the figure skating events, and the first gold medal of the games. West Germans Marika Kilius and Hans Baumler won the silver with Nancy and Ron Ludington of Massachusetts taking the bronze. David W. Jenkins came from a third place in school figures to win the gold in the men's event. His brother, Hayes Alan Jenkins, won the gold at Cortina four years before. Canadian Donald Jackson won the silver, and Californian Tim Brown the Bronze.

As always, the women's figure skating was the premier event, and Carol Heiss from New York won the gold medal, Sjoukje Dijkstra of the Netherlands the silver and Barbara Ann Roles from Paramount, California, won the bronze. Carol and Hayes Alan Jenkins later married.

Most of the medalists retired after the Olympics and the stage was set for the next generation of skaters. The year after the Olympic Games is often a lean one, as the best skaters retire, but in the 1950s and 1960s, most medalists only could afford to compete in one Olympiad as there were few sponsorships or exhibition fees for amateur skaters at the time. Not since Sonja Henie had skaters stayed around for a second or third Olympics. Thus, the upcoming skaters were primed to move into the top spots at the next national and world competitions, and so it was in 1960 and 1961.

The most renowned family in figure skating, the Owens, headed up the 1961 competition roster. Mother Maribel Vinson Owen was a legendary skater, coach, judge and author of one of the first books on the sport. Her two daughters, Laurence and Maribel, were set to move into top positions on the team. Laurence was 16 years old, was an honor student at Winchester High School, and she had triumphed at the 1961 U.S. National and North American Championships.

In southern California, benefit programs were held at both Polar Palace in Hollywood and Iceland in Paramount to help finance the trip to Worlds for the seven Southern Californians who were going to Prague. The local team members left the southland on Monday, February 13.

On February 15, 1961, The U.S. Figure Skating team, parents, coaches and judges--34 among the 62 passengers and crew aboard--left New York on Sabena Airlines flight number 548, which crashed before landing in Brussels, en route to Prague. The airplane's landing gear was not down, according to witnesses, and it is probable that the plane hit a high tension line about four miles from the airport's runway. Nearby residents said the plane was making more noise than usual and was much lower than usual. There were no survivors.

My own memories of the crash of the Sabena Airlines plane in Brussels, Belgium, on February 15, 1961, are still vivid. I was in high school at Hollywood Professional School, and had many skaters as classmates. The tragedy happened during Wednesday night and, not knowing what else to do, we all showed up at school that day. The sight of each other set us off and the school's owner, Bertha Mann, told us to take as much time as we needed to grieve. Since several of us went to the same church, we took everyone to Hollywood Presbyterian Church where one of the ministers, Rev. Mr. Richard Langford, spent several hours with us, not filling us with platitudes, but helping us begin the process of mourning our fellow skaters. We had just seen many of them at the Pacific Coast competition and at the Los Angeles Airport as they headed for New York to join the rest of the team.

Since the crash happened so far away, southern California ice dancer Dona Carrier's father, a minister, was chosen by the parents of other local team members to go to Brussels and help identify the remains and escort them back. The fiery nature of the crash made this very difficult and at least one family could never accept that their daughter was dead and her grave remains unmarked to this day.

Once he returned, Rev. Floyd C. Carrier was a rock for all of us. A memorial service for all the southern California victims of the crash was planned for March 5, 1961, but first we trooped to funeral after funeral, a grim task heightened by the youth of so many of the dead.

Dean E. McMinn, 44, was the manager and head coach of the U.S. Figure Skating Team which perished as they were headed for the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. McMinn, on leave from his job as an accountant for the treasury department on Terminal Island, had taken the team to the National Championships at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs just three weeks before, and to the North American Championships [a competition between the U.S. and Canada which was abandoned soon after this] after that in Philadelphia.

He was a graduate of Narbonne High School where he played basketball. He was a Navy man who served on PT boats during World War II. McMinn was a frequent judge of figure skating competitions, and had judged the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and the Pacific Coast Championships held at Polar Palace from January 12-14, 1961.

Dean McMinn's services were held at 11:00 a.m. at A.M. Gamby Chapel, the Rev. Wm. Roleder presiding, and he is buried at Green Hills Memorial Park.

Only hours later, we assembled at Dilday Chapel in Long Beach, where services for Rhode Lee Michelson were held at 2:30 p.m. She is also interned at Green Hills Memorial Park.

Rhode was born March 9, 1943, and she was a senior at Wilmington's Banning High School when she boarded the doomed flight. The Los Angeles Mirror said "she was definitely headed for the 1964 Olympics and was destined to become one of the world's great figure skaters." Her 15-year-old brother Mike was a speed skater.

Rhode had been skating since she was 11 years old, and was a member of the Arctic Blades Figure Skating Club based at Paramount Iceland. Her coach, William Kipp, who was also killed in the Belgian airliner crash, was confident in Rhode's success. As Kipp's surviving relative, his mother, resided in Allentown, Pennsylvania, his funeral was not held in southern California. Kipp was also coach to novice champion, Peggy Fleming. Rhode won the broze medal in the senior ladies event at the U.S. Nationals. Stephanie Westerfield won the silver and the gold was taken by Laurence Owen.

At the 1961 U.S. Championships, Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce were the gold medal winners in their first competition as a team. Diane and Larry paired up when his former partner, Marilyn Meeker, suffered a broken bone in her foot. Larry moved from Indianapolis to skate with North Hollywood-based Diane, and both competed as members of the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club.

Diane (called Dee Dee by all) had entered dance events on the west coast for several years with different partners, until she met Larry while he was on a visit to the west coast after the 1960 competition season. Dee Dee had been skating since age ten and she won the 1958 Southern California Bronze Dance Competition with Raymond Chenson. Later, with Roger Campbell, she placed second behind Larry and Marilyn in the 1959 National Silver Dance competiton. She graduated from Hamilton High School in Culver City, California and worked for the Pacific Telephone Company. She and Larry were coached by Daniel Ryan, of Indianapolis, also a victim of the plane crash.

"They are going to go a long way," said Dick Button during television coverage of Nationals, about Dona Carrier and Roger Campbell, Pacific Coast Ice Dance champions. Dona was born October 23, 1940 in National City, California. Her funeral services were held March 2, 1961 at the Little Church of the Flowers and she was buried in the Garden of Honor at Forest Lawn, Glendale. Dr. H.M.S. Richards and Rev. Francis F. Bush officiated.

The marker on Dona's grave reads: "Our Beloved Daughter -- Dona Lee Carrier -- Gold medalist and member of the U.S. Figure Skating Team, representing the U.S. in World Competition which was to be held in Prague. She perished at the peak of her career with all her teamates in the Sabena Airlines crash in Brussels, Belgium. She was beautiful, talented and good. 'A cup of gold on the ice.' 'Her grace and sweet spiritual fragrance touched many lives.' 'Her lovliness glowed from within.' I will come again and receive you unto myself -- John 14:3"

A memorial for all southern Californians killed in the crash was held on March 5, 1961, at the Lafayette Hotel Ballroom in Long Beach. Mr. Llewelyn Evans officiated.

My memory of that dreadful week was of rain. It rained during every funeral and at every graveside interment. It was as if the skies were weeping with all of us.

Every ice rink in southern California was filled with gloom for weeks after the tragedy. Not only had we lost our fellow skaters, but the loss of so many of the top coaches and judges left a gaping hole in figure skating in the United States. At a recent gathering of many Polar Palace skaters, everyone agreed that the entire face of figure skating changed that day in February. Not only the style of skating changed but the legacy of so many of the top practitioners of the sport was lost, along with their mentoring. Many also felt that the abolition of school figures from competitive skating might not have happened without the loss of that team. And with that abolition, the entire concept of edges, shoulder rotation and proper balance was lost, along with a graceful, welll-placed free leg. The journey to the quad jumps began, and the lost artistry will never be replaced.

Yes, figure skating continued, but it was many years before Americans rose again to the top of the medal podiums.

1961 World Team
U.S. Team

Rhode Lee Michelson
Rhode Lee Michelson

Diane Sherbloom
Diane Sherbloom

Dona Carrier and Roger Campbell
Dona Carrier and Roger Campbell

Arctic Blades plaque

"Their epitaph is told in the tears
of thousands of other skaters around
the globe, and by three pairs of
melted skates that dangled from a
crumpled piece of the airplane in
the sun that day."

2006 Sylvia Stoddard; portions 1962 Sylvia Clay Stoddard