Thursday, September 6th, 2012
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Memories linger at Memorial Field
Last Curtain Call
As you approach the front gates of Memorial Stadium in Minster, the weathered plaque is difficult to overlook.
Encased in the side of a two-ton boulder, the bronze engraving has greeted fans to the field for decades, and over time it has become such a piece of the stadium's ambience that it is sometimes easy to walk by without paying attention to what it says or the meaning behind it.
Protruding from the stone are eight names - Kenneth Sommer, Scott Westerheide, Joy Brandewie, Rebecca Moorman, Lester Ranly, Barbara Olding, Michael Kemper and Anthony Kemper - with last names that are still sprinkled throughout the Minster section of the telephone book.
Unfortunately these particular eight share a common nightmarish reason for appearing on this particular rock.
Unless preserved properly, newspapers from March of 1976 now appear yellowed and slightly brittle, but the story splashed across their pages leap out in heart-breaking detail.
It was Sunday, March 7, 1976, and as was tradition in Auglaize and Mercer County on Sunday nights, local teenagers motored to U.S. 127 a few miles north of state Route 119 to the Carousel Ballroom for a weekly dance.
Although there were quicker routes, the choice of taking Minster-Fort Recovery Road out of Minster was more about strategy than saving time on that particular night. The Minster kids earned some bragging rights the night before when they eliminated the Marion Local Flyers from the district basketball tournament, so the plan was to honk a few horns while caravanning through Maria Stein.
The collection of cars took off from town and rumbled west before stopping at the intersection of Minster-Fort Recovery and Rolfes Roads, a notoriously dangerous crossroads where the eastbound traffic is abruptly greeted by a stop sign midway through the downslope of a hill. With their vehicles idled, dozens of kids exited into the roadway to discuss immediate plans before heading to the dance.
The next few minutes on that rural roadway would impact an entire generation of local kids for decades to follow.
An unsuspecting vehicle traveling from the east motored over the hill, striking a mass of kids and killing eight.
The community was in shambles, with no other options but to pull together in the coming days, weeks, months and years. Ten-thousand people passed through the visitations and funeral masses, while support – both financial and emotional - poured in from strangers from all corners of the country. Numerous memorial funds were established in honor of the victims, but the largest sum - more than $125,000, including a sizable donation from the victims' families - went toward constructing what was later christened as "Minster Memorial Stadium".
On September 19, 1976 - just over six months after the tragedy, the stadium was officially dedicated. A Catholic mass of thanksgiving was given by Father Joseph Pax, while representatives from Minster High School and its student body, as well as victims' family members spoke to the full house.
The ceremony was a roller coaster of feelings - celebratory and somber, congratulatory and sorrowful, as well as optimistically hoping for a promising future while honoring an unforgettable past. The initial football game at the stadium occurred two days earlier and ended in a tie with the Ada Bulldogs. The result had little bearing on much though, because the stadium was a fresh focal point of pride for a community that had been through hell.
Through the years, the stadium has undergone numerous facelifts, but none that holds a candle financially to the campaign that the Minster Athletic Boosters are celebrating on Friday night.
Last spring, a major fundraiser kicked off in hopes of pulling in more than $600,000.00 geared toward renovations including a new lighting system and track, home bleacher refurbishing, an expanded storage facility behind the concession stand, landscaping behind the home bleachers, and resurfacing of the playing field, as well as updating the visitor's locker rooms which sit in the high school across the parking lot. Directly to the east of the concession stand sits a beautiful paver garden, specially built to honor Minster's nearly 80 individual state track and field champions since 1975.
The funds were remarkably raised in just over eight weeks, opening the door for construction to begin almost immediately with several local companies providing their services. Other than a few final touches to the track, the project is now complete and most important, within budget. At halftime of the game against northbound rival New Bremen, the booster club plans to acknowledge the countless hours of manpower and generous financial backing for the overhaul, while also conducting a rededication ceremony with representatives from the victims' families presiding.
For the tens of thousands who have arrived at Memorial Stadium over the past 35 years, what happens inside the oval on football Fridays is one of the most important things in the world at that moment. For quite a few others though who glance over at the weathered plaque on their way in, they understand that what is going on inside that oval represents so much more.
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