Skating team remembered 50 years after tragedy

Jan 23 2011 - 6:38pm

DETROIT -- "I was in high school at the time, in a chorale group, and we were rehearsing in the Michigan State University Chapel for a concert that we were going to give," Gary Clark is saying now. "So I was in this church, with the light coming in through the stained glass windows, and one of the guys behind me tapped me on the shoulder while the music was going on. He said, 'Did you hear about the plane crash where all the skaters died?'

"I'd been teased a lot in high school about being a skater and all that other stuff, and I thought to myself, 'Boy, of all the things they've done, this is the meanest because these are my friends.'

"And then he said, 'No. I'm not kidding you. This really happened.'

"The only people I knew that were flying was the U.S. world figure skating team. As soon as we got through, I ran out to a pay phone and I called my father. I said, 'Dad, this person just said this to me; is this true?' And he said, 'Gary, I read about and heard about it this morning. But I wasn't going to say anything until you came home from school.'

"I said, 'Can you pick me up?'

"Then I went into the bathroom and cried."

On Feb. 15, 1961, a plane carrying 72 people, including the entire 18-member U.S. figure skating team traveling to Prague for the world championships, crashed in Belgium. All on board were killed, including Gary Clark's best friend, Doug Ramsay, of the Detroit Skating Club.

Ramsay, 16, was on his first international trip as a senior men's competitor. He was with his coach, Bill Swallender, who a decade earlier taught 1952 ladies world bronze medalist Ginny (Baxter) Newman of Detroit.

As the 50th anniversary of the tragedy approaches, Clark, now 66, and Newman, 78, describe on Pages 12-13C the influence that Ramsay and Swallender had in their lives.

This is their tribute.

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