By Chris Celichowski
Thirty autumns ago, Monday, November 25, 1985, a slate grey sky hung over Dretzka Park in Milwaukee. As it had many cold November days before, nearby Lake Michigan pumped icy, moist air through skin into bone. For Minnesotan Bonnie Sons, the weather foreshadowed a tragedy whose memory three decades later still casts a melancholy pall over her heart.
Seven cross country runners from Iowa State University had just conquered the elements, their opponents, and their own limitations to earn second place at the 1985 NCAA Division I National Cross Country Championships. But runners Sheryl Maas, Julie Rose and Sue Baxter, coaches Ron Renko and Pat Moynihan, and student trainer Stephanie Streit could not outrun Fate. Hours after living out their dreams, they died before creating new visions, victims of a tragic plane crash.
|ISU’s 1985 NCAA CC Championship runner-up team.
Front row, from left, Tami Prescott (Colby) and Julie Rose.
Back row, Charlene Elyea (Lentzring), Sheryl Maas, Bonnie Sons,
Sue Baxter and Jill Winter (Slettedahl). (Photo Geraldine Sons).
For Bonnie Sons and the remaining members of the Cyclone women’s cross country team, 30 years have scarcely dulled the sharp pain of that day. Sons, the 1983 Class A two-mile champion from Central High in Norwood, was a junior at Iowa State and the Cyclones’ top finisher at the national meet. She now lives in Shorewood, Minnesota, and runs for Team Run ‘N Fun in local and regional road races. Three decades later, details of the race have become a blur, yet the crash remains a vivid specter.
"When I eulogized Ron [Renko] at the ISU memorial service, I called it ‘A day of triumph and tragedy.’ I guess that’s the way I’ll always remember it," Sons said.
The second-place finish at the Division I meet capped a tremendous year for Sons and her ISU teammates. With "Ain’t Nothing Gonna Break My Stride" as the team anthem, the Cyclone lady harriers won ISU’s fourth Big Eight CC Championship in Renko’s seven seasons. They captured their fourth consecutive NCAA Region V title. Although Renko coached ISU to an AIAW national title in 1981, the team’s finish in the ‘85 NCAA meet marked the school’s best finish in that meet. He did it with only one all-American finisher (Sons) and a pack of strong, determined young women, including: Tami Prescott (Colby), Charlene Elyea (Lentzring), Julie Rose, Sue Baxter, Cheryl Maas, and Jill Winter (Slettedahl).
After the meet, Sons and her excited teammates returned to the hotel, dressed, packed and left immediately for the airport.
"Normally, we would eat after we showered, then return to Ames. But that day, Ron decided we would have a dinner celebration when we got back to Ames," Sons recalled. "We never got to celebrate."
Iowa State owned three seven-seat Rockwell AeroCommanders, operated by university pilots. The Cyclone basketball team needed the planes the same day. The men’s cross country team got on one plane, and a few remaining members of the men’s team got on the second plane. Sons boarded the third plane with Maas, Rose, Baxter, Renko, Moynihan, Streit and pilot Burt Watkins. Elyea and Winter drove home to Iowa and Minnesota, respectively, with their parents. After Sons placed her bag on the third plane and took her seat, the pilot of the second plane, Bill Brock, asked Sons, who earned her license during her first two years of college, if she wanted to ride in the co-pilot’s seat of the second plane. She accepted the invitation and took her bag to the second plane. Brock, needing to fill his plane, also asked Tami Prescott to join them. She left her bag on the third plane. Brock’s invitations saved, and forever changed, Sons’ and Prescott’s lives.
When the three planes left Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, the pilots knew a wall of bad weather stood between them and Ames. As they cruised above the clouds in pristine stillness, weather forecasters from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told them the wall contained a mixture of sleet, ice and snow. They advised the ISU planes to divert from landing at the small municipal airport in Ames and land in Des Moines, a larger airport equipped with an Instrument Landing System which would aid the pilots’ landing in bad weather.
As they approached the Des Moines airport, the three planes were in frequent contact with the tower and each other. The first plane landed. Sons’ plane, the second one, began its approach. The third plane followed them about 10 or 15 minutes behind.
"I’ve never been so terrified in my life," Sons recalls. Outside, the mixture of precipitation made visibility nearly impossible and the sky’s ceiling was too close to the ground. "I was gripping the front dash of the plane. Bill asked me to look out the front window and guide him. When I finally saw the landing lights, I told him we were already over the runway and not too far off the ground. We landed long on the runway, but safely. When we got out of the plane, the ground was like a skating rink."
They went to a nearby fixed base operator (FBO), joined the occupants of the first plane, and waited for the third plane. Ten minutes passed, then 15. As they waited, they could not hear the exchange between Burton Watkins, the pilot of the third plane, and the Des Moines tower:
Watkins: OK, we’re cleared to land. [Other radio traffic.] Des Moines. Five eight nine. I seem to have some real trouble here...ah, I’m, ah...I’m in severe turbulence.
Tower: Commander five eight niner, Roger, ah, can you climb and maintain three thousand feet?
Watkins: I’m trying, but I’m not doing very well.
Tower: Commander five eight niner, Roger, ah, fly heading three six zero, if able climb and maintain three thousand feet. [Delay.] He’s losing it.
Approach: What’s the problem?
Tower: He’s getting severe turbulence.
Watkins: I can’t do anything. I’m in the trees now.
Tower: Commander five eight niner, Des Moines. [Delay.] AeroCommander five eight niner, Des Moines! [Delay.] I think he crashed.
After 25 minutes, a nervous pilot Bill Brock called the tower to check on the status of the third plane. When he returned to the FBO, the waiting runners and coaches saw Brock’s ashen face and learned the third plane went down. It had crashed in a sparsely wooded residential area, slamming into a homeowner’s front lawn on Country Club Boulevard, less than three miles from the airport. Maas, Rose, Baxter, Renko, Moynihan, Streit and pilot Watkins died immediately. So did a part of each remaining member of the Cyclone women’s cross country team.
The crash occurred while Sons’ parents, Tom and Geraldine, drove from Milwaukee to their farm in rural Norwood, Minnesota. They stopped for dinner and Tom Sons called his son, Greg, to check on the farm. Fortunately, Bonnie called Greg soon after she found out about the crash. He told his parents about the crash and told them Bonnie was okay. When they got in the car after supper, they turned on WCCO. Details of the crash led the news.
"I still don’t know what made me get off that plane..." Sons said softly. "It scares me to this day--’Why did I get off that plane?’" After a moment lost in thought, her suddenly empty expression disappeared and she continued. "It’s made me realize you better enjoy each day you have, because you don’t know when..." Words failed, but her emotion completed the sentence.
For Sons, losing Renko and her teammates marked the end of a chapter in her running career and her life. "We [Sons and her surviving teammates] tried to put it behind us, but it was very hard," she said. "For certain, the crash affected our track season the following spring." Even today, she finds it hard to talk about the experience.
"There was and will always be a void there. It was like losing my family. At school they were my family. When I got to Ames I knew nobody. Then all of a sudden we lost two coaches and three teammates." The mother of four knows the loss experienced by the parents of the three runners and two coaches was worse than the loss she and her teammates experienced. She reflected, "To have them snatched in the prime of their lives must have been very hard to take."
Sons remembers Anoka native Renko as an outgoing, intelligent and intense coach who knew how to motivate his charges. "Ron could convince you that you could do anything. He convinced me, this skinny, little farm girl from Norwood, Minnesota, that I could run with the best--that I could be one of them."
When Dickens wrote the immortal beginning lines of "A Tale of Two Cities," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," he could have been writing about November 25, 1985. It was a day of triumph and tragedy. A day when Fate stilled seven Cyclones.