Brad Byrd In-Depth: Mayor Winnecke remembers UE plane crash

This wednesday, marks the 40th anniversary of the University of Evansville men's basketball team plane crash. 

On December 13, 1977, the plane took off from Evansville Regional Airport. It crashed in a muddy field, killing all 29 people on board including the Aces team, Coach Bobby Watson, supporters, and sportscaster Marv Bates.

It will forever be remembered as an Evansville newspaper man called "The Night it Rained Tears" leaving the Tri-State community in mourning and coping with how absurd life can be.

Brad Byrd sits down with Mayor Lloyd Winnecke to discuss what he remembers on the night of the UE plane Crash. Mayor Winnecke was a senior at Central High School at the time of the crash.

Brad Byrd: "This Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of the University of Evansville men's basketball team plane crash. It will forever be remembered as what one Evansville newspaper man called "The Night it Rained Tears" -- leaving the Tri-state community in mourning and coping with how absurd life can be. I'm joined tonight by Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. He was ... you were a senior at Central High School at 17 years old in December of 1977.  Describe that night. How did you find out about this and what did you go through?"

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke: "So I was in the choral music program at Central High School.  And we had a madrigal performance that night and we had performed at a nursing home on the north side. Had come home. You know the weather was horrible and my parents were happy that I was home safe as a 17 year-old driver. And I come barging in the house like any 17 year-old would and said, ‘Hey, I’m home!’ and was admonished to be quiet because they were watching on the news what was happening at the airport. And, I mean, it was a very quiet scene at our house like there was like it was in thousands of households across the Tri-state."

Brad Byrd: "And this was very personal to you, Mayor, because primarily you had set your sights on attending UE."

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke: "Yeah, I was going to go to the University of Evansville so, I did not know any of the players. I knew Marv Bates. Marv taught - did some part-time teaching at Central High School, so I knew him a little bit. And uh, but, it was kind of odd because I knew I was going to go into communications. I really had aspirations at that time to do sports announcing so I really thought that there was this big void."

Brad Byrd: "And for many of us, times have changed obviously, but the Aces, in that era ... it was a controversial year as I recall because the Aces - extremely successful in Division II - the decision was made, we’re gonna go to Division I ... and that was a controversial decision. But, you were a die hard fan, just growing up going out there and watching this."

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke: "Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how at age 17 whether you process whether it’s good or bad to go from Division II to Division I. But, certainly, uh the spirit of the Aces. What happened at Robert’s Stadium win or lose was you got home and you know, your mom or dad said, ‘Hey, we’re going to the Aces game tonight.’  That was a big deal. It was huge deal, because it was such a social event. There’s so many more things to do today, but back in that day and age in 1977, it was huge. And so, that’s why the community was just devastated by this because so many people felt like they knew these players, like they knew those coaches and administrators and friends of the University that were on that plane."

Brad Byrd: "And many of us, a little older than you, but not that much older, being a very young reporter at that time, the surreal atmosphere of all of this - about that night and about that week. There was that service at Robert’s Stadium that following Sunday in which the community really did come together. But it wasn’t just the Evansville community, UE was receiving an outpouring of support from all over the country."

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke: "I mean it was really probably, was my first exposure to… sort of national recognition of something that was occurring in Evansville. And I remember that the governor was here. I remember the Pittsburgh Steelers sent some folks in from their former Super Bowl team to play a group of UE alums as a fundraiser. That was a big deal. You know, what I really remember is, that next day at school at Central, I mean it was… it was numb then. And by the following year when I was a student on campus, a lot of those students, obviously, were still students there.  And it was… you know, as the memorial plaza was being completed ... it became a really quiet place for reflection. And I remember how, just how it struck me then as - wow, this is really a special place on this campus and it will be forever."

Brad Byrd: "Right, and many people including me and I'm sure you do stroll by that weeping basketball out there on the east side. It is phenomenal to think about how quickly the University of Evansville basketball program because as you know they had to start literally from square one. But in a very short time in just a few years, they were in the NCAA Tournament." 

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke: "You know, it really was a testament to the university, to the friends of the university, to the community. Dr. Graves, the president at the time of the university, made a bold assurtion that the university would rise from that hour of agony and no truer words were spoken. The community rallied around the university's intention to bring basketball back and bring it back at the highest levels. As a communications major, I did get to call a few basketball games, so I got to meet Coach Walters and many of the players that came onto that team. And in 1982 ... I think it was 82 ... they went to the NCAA Tournament. It was an amazing turnaround, but it really was a testament to the leadership of the university and really the will and compassion this community to help that team and encourage to rebuild that program. It's really a fascinating and marvel story." 

Brad Byrd: "And another example of how Evansville can rebound from very adverse conditions through the decades. And basically, did it change you in some ways? I often say that was the night that I kind of grew up." 

Mayor Lloyd Winnecke: "You know, I think at the age of 17, I had just lost my grandfather. So, it was probably just the first time I'd really ... sort of tragedy in a large way kind of hit me personally as it hit thousands of Tri-Staters. And I think it started to make me realize just how fragile life can be. We should be fortunate for every day we're blessed, and I think it shaped me with how I treat people. That is with dignity and respect." 

Brad Byrd: "Well, I posted tonight to my Facebook a brief mention to my special report that I will be airing tonight here on WTVW and WEHT. I'm asking you to share your memories of that night and of that week of December 1977. And that's the post you can do that on. And yes, that guy there with the long hair looking over that area on that horrible morning following that night is your's truely as we were broadcasting from the site of the crash, and let me know how you feel. Share some of your memories on my Facebook page. Mayor Winnecke, thank you so much for joining us tonight to talk about this. Thank you so much for being here, and have a good holiday season. Alright." 

For the latest breaking news and stories from across the Tri-State, follow Eyewitness News on Facebook and Twitter.

(This story was originally published December 11, 2017)


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