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This page by Jon Kennedy
Written and posted in June 1999

A Death in the Family

And how it forever
changed our lives

Hold cursor over photos to read captions.

recent TV drama about the death of a boy thrown from a horse brought a flood of memories about the death of my brother, Gary, in a car crash in 1957, and how we surviving family members coped with that loss. I wrote after my mother's death in 1993 that the great tragedy of my parents'Gary's Blacklick Township High School graduation picture, 1956 lives had been Gary's death. After 42 years, no other experience in my life brings more sadness. Nothing in my life of 57 years has been more instructive; nothing has made me pay more attention to life and death, concerns of the spirit, and what matters and what doesn't.

Gary was 19 and working in Detroit at the time, visiting our home in Western Pennsylvania for the Labor Day weekend. Good or bad credit auto loans were easy enough to obtain and a friend's parents had bought a new Ford Fairlane that Saturday and the friend, Joe Benkosky, Gary, and a third friend, Alan ("Buzz") Baldwin, apparently decided to see what the new car could do in the early hours of that Sunday morning. The car left the highway and slammed into the C&I Railroad underpass abutment in Belsano, less than a half mile from Buzz Baldwin's home, killing all three occupants immediately.

I was four years younger, and like lots of siblings with that range of separation, Gary and I were not close. My perception was he was always picking on me, and it dawned on me only a few years ago that it may well have been a classic case of sibling rivalry. Gary had been the "baby" for four years before I was born, and was just coming into self-awareness when the big rival, in the form of me, arrived to divert his mother's attention (our father paid almost no attention to us when young and we were always Gary at age 12, sixth grade. He was always the tallest member of his class.being warned not to bother him). When I was a year old, Gary got too close to a bonfire that ignited the felt play cowboy chaps he was wearing, burning him severely and putting him near death for months afterward, and leaving his legs badly scarred for the rest of his life.

Earlier on the night he died, I had gone roller skating in Ebensburg and mentioned to my girlfriend, Caryl, that he was visiting from Detroit and we had had one of the few civil conversations of our lives that day. I remember him telling me how disc jockeys talked on Detroit radio stations, and I felt good that he finally seemed to be accepting me as a person rather than a pest.

Besides Gary being home for Labor Day weekend, our aunt and uncle were visiting from Ohio, and they and their young son were occupying our bedrooms. I was sleeping on the davenport in the living room; the couch in the dining room was made up for Gary.

There was only one phone in the house, in the living room, and it seemed to ring 10 times before I was roused enough to answer it some time around 2 a.m. (I have hated prolonged ringing of phones ever since). It was Liz Baldwin, Buzz's sister, wanting to know if Gary was home. I checked the couch to find it empty. Liz was vague about why she wanted to know, but it soon became obvious the Baldwins had already been informed about the accident. One victim's body was trapped in the mangled car and so badly burned that the police had trouble identifying it, which is why Liz asked me to check. I found out only in 1998 that the police actually inquired at the home of at least one other young man in the area to eliminate him as one of the possible victims before checking with us.

The only known picture of all three accident victims together. Gary is second from left, Joe Benkosky second from right, Buzz Baldwin right. The boy on the left is Dawn 'Jitter' Lanzendorfer, who has a trucking company in Twin Rocks. The other young man is George Kim. This photo was taken on the street in Washington, D.C., on their senior class trip.

Before I was off the phone with Liz, it seemed, state troopers were out in front of our house, calling up to Mom and Dad's bedroom. My memory, though not at all clear, is that they broke the tragic news through the window screens instead of meeting Mom and Dad at the door.

I knew from that point on that my parents and I were in a state of shock—though I couldn't have defined that, but part of it was total absence of appetite—from then until some indefinite time in the future. There was of course no thought of going back to sleep. Shortly after dawn we observed the neighbor boy, Sonny Thompson, leaving to put in a day's work on setting up the carnival at the county fairgrounds; Cambria County Fair always opens Labor Day.

Though I was in shock and feeling shocked, I didn't feel any emotion that first day. I was amazed when Dad, halfway through relating the news toGary's senior class card. his brother by phone in Altoona, broke down and couldn't complete what he was saying. "Here, Reid," (he always called me by my middle name, Reid), he said to me in tears, "you finish it." And I did, cool as a cucumber and feeling guilty for feeling so little.

A friend of my mother's urged her to take a drink of something strong early that morning, and I remember Mom's shocked reaction; she wouldn't think of doing such a thing. Mother wouldn't have touched alcohol under any circumstance, but especially in this situation she felt it would dishonor Gary. And though I was just a silent witness to this exchange, I knew exactly what she meant. The friend wanted to help Mom dull her feelings, but Mom felt, and I did too, that our feelings were all of Gary that we had left. If he were dead, how could we even consider making our piddling lives less uncomfortable at that prospect? To diminish our grief would diminish his now-lost life.

I have no idea where that "value" came from, specifically, but it seemed to define our way of dealing with the loss, for both of my parents and me. (My two older brothers were already living at distant points so I was not a witness to their reactions first-hand, though we've since discussed the matter and I know they were also indelibly affected by the loss. Gary's residence in Detroit, for example, was with our oldest brother, so his loss was not only that of younger brother but of a member of his new family, as well.)

Some families are ripped apart by the loss of one member; ours was drawn together. Perhaps it was the totally unexpected nature of the accident and the complete disengagement of any of us in it, so there was no one to blame even subconsciously. None of us doubted God in the face of the tragedy; even my agnostic father seemed to accept the accident as the kind of event in which God becomes more important, not less (within a decade he gave up his agnosticism and got baptized). Mother and I became engrossed in the study of theology to try to understand Gary's death in God's perspective. My fifteenth year (the one from age 14 to 15) had been rough; Mom and I were at odds all the time, fighting with each other. I determined fairly soon after this event that I would never cause her pain again. Friends were surprised that my parents made no objection to my getting my driver's permit a few months later, as many Pennsylvania 15-year-olds do, as Gary had done. We had both been driving the farm tractor for years before our 15th birthdays.

Though everything was different after the accident, many things went on routinely. If I remember correctly, Gary's funeral was the afternoon of Labor Day Monday at the EUB church we'd attended in Belsano most of our lives (it was at the funeral, especially during the choir's singing of "Nearer My God to Thee," that I finally broke and shed sobbing tears). Buzz and Joe both being members of the same Catholic church in Twin Rocks, one funeral was held for both of them, the next morning, which we attended (both churches were full; the accident obviously shocked the whole Valley, and because Buzz Baldwin's father was one of the first attempting to offer help at the accident scene, totally unsuspecting that one of the victims was his son, it received national news coverage).

My memory is not clear, but I believe I was in school already on Wednesday (school was always suspended in many Cambria County districts, including ours, on the Tuesday after Labor Day, so children would have a day to attend the Fair). The accident was the major local news story in the Johnstown daily paper that Labor Day*, as it was in the weekly Nanty Glo Journal the following Thursday. Both stories included lurid photos of the totally demolished car, and school pictures of the three victims.

Though people often feel violated by such reporting on their loved ones, none of my family members felt that way in the least. Our attitude was much the opposite—it's tragic enough for a teenager to lose his life in an accident, but it would be even more tragic for that loss to go unnoted. This was the last opportunity Gary would ever have to make a ripple on the river of life; we were grateful for any spreading of those ripples. (It should be noted, however, that no reporters made any intrusions into our lives or our grief in getting their stories.)

By the same token, every card, note, and personal word was meaningful and appreciated, and we received them from all over the country and people we hadn't heard from in many years, or as in the case of Gary's employers and co-workers in Detroit, people we hadn't even heard of before. My own feeling in dealing with others in grief has often been ambiguous despite my personal experience (thinking along the lines, "what right have I to intrude at such a time?"), but my experience is that there is comfort in the words of support from friends and well-wishers.

One of the unexpected "positives" to come out of the loss was that many of Gary's friends, both close and nominal ones, made a point of seeking me out over the next several years, to tell me how they felt the loss, and offer condolences. I couldn't attend a school football game, for example, without having someone or several people make such an approach. Gary's girlfriend, Nancy Wilson, who was two years older than I and attended the same school, became my friend, and I spent lots of time with her and several of her girlfriends. I don't believe she ever recovered from the loss, and she died tragically also, in her early twenties.

Nancy Wilson leans back on her friend, Joyce Green, on the beautiful campus of Blacklick Township High School, during lunch hour. The other girl Ruth Kopsic.

I had been reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People before the accident and finished it a couple of weeks afterward. On the basis of Carnegie's teaching, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Nanty Glo Journal, using Carnegie's techniques to "influence" him. I had an idea for writing a weekly column for teenagers. The editor of the Ebensburg paper, for which I had already been writing a weekly column of Blacklick Township news items for several years, had turned down the idea.

My application of Carnegie's tips on writing a persuasive letter seemed to work perfectly. Andrew P. Rogalski, editor of the Journal, called me in for an interview and gave me the assignment I requested, less than a month after Gary's death, so two of the most formative events of my entire life happened that September. Unbeknownst to me until years later, Rogalski had also been greatly shaken by the accident. He was one of the first persons on the scene,  covering it for the Journal, so who knows what thoughts went through his mind when he got my letter, or what really motivated him to try a teen column for the paper?

For that matter, who knows how the accident affected the reception the column received from the public, especially the area's teenagers and young adults who, as the children of coal miners for the most part, had a pretty rough reputation? Nanty Glo, especially, was discussed as a hotbed of juvenile delinquency, "cat gangs," and drug traffic, though its reputation was no doubt largely mythical. It's reasonable to speculate that if the accident that took my brother's life hadn't happened, I'd have never become the teen columnist for the Nanty Glo Journal nor, subsequent to that, the paper's third and youngest editor. It's also highly possible that the accident changed the way not only Andrew P. Rogalski looked at my teen column, but the way it was looked at by people all over Cambria County (it appeared in two other weekly newspapers, in Portage and Cresson-Gallitzin, besides the Nanty Glo Journal).

Why visit this painful topic after 42 years? I suppose someone becomes a writer for therapy as much as anything else. And second to that, perhaps in the hope of helping someone else on life's journey. I always knew I'd write about it (and have done so in fiction before, but this is the first factual recapping), so 42 years afterward is none too soon.

For years, we thought this was Gary on the tractor. Now, thanks to computer enhancement, I'm not sure. I might have left a roll of film go undeveloped for three to five years (the date on the photo is two years after Gary's death). But Gary seldom wore caps. Any suggestions?

—Jon Kennedy

Photos, from top to bottom:
(For captions while viewing, hold cursor on photo; return cursor to photo for additional time. Works best with Internet Explorer Browsers.)

1. Gary's Blacklick Township High School senior class picture, 1956.

2. Gary's sixth-grade picture. He was always the tallest member of his class.

3. The only known picture of all three accident victims together. Gary is second from left, Joe Benkosky second from right, Buzz Baldwin right. The boy on the left is Dawn "Jitter" Lanzendorfer, who now owns a trucking business in Twin Rocks. The other young man is George Kim. This photo was taken on the street in Washington, D.C., on their senior class trip.

4. Gary's senior card.

5. Nancy Wilson leans back on her friend, Joyce Green, on the beautiful campus of Blacklick Township High School, during lunch hour. The other girl is Ruth Kopsic.

6. For years, we thought this was Gary on the tractor. Now, thanks to computer enhancement, I'm not sure. I might have left a roll of film go undeveloped for three to five years (the date on the photo is two years after Gary's death). But Gary seldom wore caps. Any suggestions?

*Footnote: Though I remembered it as the Labor Day edition of the Tribune- Democrat, actually at that time the T-D did not publish on US Mail holidays. The edition described was the one for Tuesday, September 3 1957.


© 1999, 2000 JRK