IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel visits the legendary Knute Rockne’s gravesite. Gregg Doyel/IndyStar, Gregg Doyel/IndyStar
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – There are bigger stones here, larger chunks of marble honoring the dead, tombstones that rise majestically above the manicured lawns of Highland Cemetery. The smaller stone is nestled among them, one of three little tombstones in a row.
His memory has been preserved with quiet elegance and dedication, cared for by a man he never met, honored by a legion of fans who never saw him work, who came into this world long after he departed it in a barren field in eastern Kansas.
They come bearing gifts. Small bottles of liquor or cans of beer, left unopened on his tombstone. Cigars still in their wrapper. Coins, face up. Some leave with a piece of him. Well, with a piece of his stone, which has been chipped away at the corners.
That stone offers no hint of what he was, only who.
Father, it says.
1888-1931, it says.
Knute K. Rockne, it says.
‘That’s not his grave’
The monument, bigger, gaudier, is across the way. One cemetery employee is driving a backhoe. Two more are on the ground, tending to the freshly turned earth. They see me coming. They see me stop at the monument, get out of my car, take a picture. They stop digging. One man trots over.
“That’s not his grave,” he says. “That’s his monument. People make that mistake all the time. His grave is over there.”
Tracy — that’s the name stenciled on his blue Highland Cemetery uniform — points past the larger tombstones, like marble teeth rising from green gums. He points to three smaller stones embedded in the grass. But Tracy remains right here, in front of the 6-foot stone monument. He’s reading the words engraved into the copper plate. He’s whistling in appreciation.
“One hundred and five wins and 12 losses?” Tracy says. “Man.”
Tracy has worked here 10 years. He passes this monument every day. He had never stopped to read it before today. He has other interests.
“God willing,” he says, “if I ever get to Seattle, I’m stopping to see the grave sites of Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix. They’re both buried in Seattle.”
Tracy goes back to reading the Knute Rockne monument.
“This is a replica of the one in Oslo?” he says. “He was born in Norway? Man.”
Indeed. On both sides of the Atlantic, the world mourned on March 31, 1931, when a 12-seat plane went down in Bazaar, Kansas.
Norway’s King Haakon VII sent condolences to Rockne’s widow. President Herbert Hoover called Rockne’s death “a national loss.” The U.S. Navy named a ship the SS Knute Rockne. A small town in the Southwest, a town called Hilbigville, voted to rename itself. Rockne, Texas. Population 400.
The man was just 43.
Did Al Capone kill Knute Rockne?
Had he lived another life, had he attended another university, Knute Rockne might have been a science nerd. But in 1910, Notre Dame was still a small school trying to find its place on the national landscape, and it required students to do more than go to class. They had to play a sport, and one of them made a choice that would propel Notre Dame into international prominence. Knute Rockne chose football.
And was cut from the team.
He was small for an end, too small for Frank Longman’s 1910 Fighting Irish, so Rockne tried track, the pole vault. Rockne set the school indoor record at 12 feet, 4 inches, tried out again for football in 1911 and made it. The rest is history: Captain as a senior, third-team All-American, joining with quarterback Gus Dorais to form one of college football’s earliest passing combinations.
It is a history not written on that tiny tombstone at Highland Cemetery, nor is much of it on the monument, a replica of the one in Oslo, where he lived for five months until his family immigrated to Chicago. The monument stands 6 feet tall, but there is only so much room. And there is so much history.
Rockne was a brilliant chemistry student but a rough-and-tumble athlete, fighting semi-professionally around South Bend, playing football, running track. He also wrote for the student paper, played the flute in the orchestra, acted in the theater and worked as a janitor. A fascinating man, Knute Rockne, and when he graduated he was offered a job as a graduate assistant … in the chemistry department. There, he would help a professor named Julius Nieuwland in the early days of Nieuwland’s work that led to the invention of neoprene.
To take the job, to teach chemistry, Rockne countered with one request: He wanted to assist Notre Dame football coach Jesse Harper, who had come from Wabash before Rockne’s junior season in 1913.
More history: Harper resigned after the 1917 season and was replaced by his 29-year-old assistant, the chemist named Rockne, who had a gift for the forward pass and the motivational speech. The Irish went undefeated in two of his first three seasons and won their first national title in his sixth, in 1924. Two more titles followed, undefeated seasons in 1929 and ’30.
On March 31, 1931, the greatest coach of his day climbed into a 12-seat plane in Kansas City, Missouri. TWA Flight 599 was bound for Los Angeles but destined for a field in Bazaar, Kansas, where a lopsided stone marker honors the spot.
Why the plane went down remains a mystery, though the Detroit Evening Times posited in 1933 that Rockne and the seven other people aboard were victims of a gangland slaying.
The headline on Jan. 7, 1933: “Bomb killed Rockne, put in plane by gang.”
According to the theory, investigated in detail last year by author Jeff Harrell in “Rockne of Ages,” the intended target wasn’t on the plane. The target, as the theory goes, was Father John Reynolds, a Notre Dame priest who had allegedly witnessed the murder of a Chicago Tribune reporter, a killing ordered by a member of Al Capone’s gang. Reynolds was to testify at the trial.
Rockne, according to Harrell’s reporting, had bumped into Reynolds on campus on March 28, 1931. He told the priest he was trying to get to Los Angeles to assist in the production of the movie “The Spirit of Notre Dame,” but he was struggling to find a plane ticket on such short notice. As fate and the story go, Reynolds had been planning to visit Los Angeles himself and already had the ticket, but the trial was running long. He wouldn’t be able to make it. He gave his ticket for TWA Flight 599 to Knute Rockne.
Knute Rockne’s lagingerbread house
“I guess you know who lived there.”
Kevin Wilson walks over. He sees me standing on Wayne Street, a quiet, tree-lined stretch of South Bend. Wilson lives across the street, five houses down.
The house is red brick set against white stucco with brown trim. Tall, sloping roof. Notre Dame banner flapping from the flag stand. From the front it looks like a gingerbread house, and not much bigger. But the house goes and goes in the back, toward the towering oaks that line Knute Rockne’s old backyard.
Kevin Wilson tells me he’s a magician on the side but makes his living painting houses.
“I painted the basement,” he says, pointing to Rockne’s old house. “The owner wasn’t family, but they had Knute Rockne memorabilia down there.”
Rockne had the house built in 1929, and Wilson is telling me it has had just three owners. The gawkers come, people like me wanting to grasp onto whatever is tangible, whatever is left of the great Notre Dame football coach.
As Wilson leaves, my attention goes to another recluse, another mystery. To the man who tends the grave of Knute Rockne.
The recluse who tends Rockne’s grave
For 25 years he has come to Highland Cemetery with his mulch and his trimmer, his flowers and his gloves. For 25 years he has tended to the grave of a man he never knew, a man whose plane went down one month before Sylvester Cashen was born 88 years ago.
Cashen isn’t there the day I visit Knute Rockne’s grave, and he doesn’t return a phone message I leave for him or answer the door when I visit his home in South Bend, not far from Rockne’s old house. Cashen doesn’t talk much, from what I’ve been told, but his handiwork speaks to his affection for Knute Rockne.
The rectangular strip of land that holds the matching tombstones of Rockne, his wife and son has been manicured just so, the grass carved perfectly around a bed of small white rocks sprinkled there by Cashen. Green flowers with no bulbs, as understated as the tombstones, grow next to each marker.
Two pieces of evidence suggest Rockne’s gravesite has had visitors since Cashen, a retired butcher in a Notre Dame dining hall, was last here: A small medallion placed on the tombstone — a face inside an old leather football helmet — and a Don Augusto cigar wedged between the marble and manicured grass.
“Cash wouldn’t leave those there,” says Glenn Ringer, a family service counselor at Highland and a man hoping to honor Cashen for his commitment to Rockne.
He’s meticulous, Sylvester Cashen. His wife, Mara Peterson, grew up around the corner from Knute and Bonnie Rockne. The families were friends, so close that Mara’s parents were at Bonnie Rockne’s side when she buried her husband, so close that Mara’s father — Cashen’s father-in-law — purchased cemetery plots near where the Rocknes are buried so they would be neighbors forever.
And so it is that Cashen came to notice Rockne’s grave, saw the tokens left behind, the beer cans and shot glasses and coins and more, and took it upon himself to keep it clean. One thing led to another, and soon he’s planting flowers and laying mulch and using the cemetery lawnmower to get the landscape just right. These days he tends to several graves. Mara is buried nearby.
Sylvester Cashen has never asked to be paid for his work — it is, truly, a labor of love — but someday Cashen will be buried with Mara, less than 100 feet from Knute Rockne. When that day comes, Ringer would like to honor the man’s dedication in a permanent way. He has tried to raise money for a memorial devoted to the care Cashen has shown the most famous gravesite in South Bend, but to no avail.
“Cash is too humble to do it himself,” Ringer says. “He doesn’t come here for recognition. He just thinks it’s the right thing to do.”
Once upon a time, Cashen roped off the three Rockne headstones, trying to keep visitors from leaving behind their beer, their liquor. Trying to keep them from chipping off pieces of marble. He stopped over the years, realizing visitors were undeterred by a little rope.
They have come — we all come — to see the innocuous resting spot of a most famous man. The gaudy monument with the 105-12 win-loss record, that’s across the road. The legendary football coach is under that perfect grass and small stone describing him only as “father,” buried alongside Bonnie (“mother”) and William (“son”). Next to Knute’s stone is a white candle inside a blue case, a burning flame mounted under four engraved words:
God, country, Notre Dame.
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