Lives shattered 50 years ago glued back together with hard work

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJune 2, 2012 

Maureen Hamilton Riordan of Sun City Hilton Head was 11 years old when she became an adult.

She was the oldest of five children when her dad took a business trip and never came home.

Everyone was asleep in their apartment in Euclid, Ohio, a working-class suburb of Cleveland, when the phone rang at 3:30 a.m. on May 23, 1962. Rosemary Hamilton, who never liked her husband to be away, answered the phone. It was Continental Airlines. The plane Maurice E. Hamilton was aboard was missing over Missouri or Iowa.

In a night of pacing and praying, Rosemary learned from the radio that Flight 11 from Chicago to Los Angeles via Kansas City had crashed. She heard there was one survivor, and then that the survivor had died. She knew she would never see her beloved Maury again.

Besides that one phone call, she said the only thing she ever got from Continental Airlines was a sealed coffin with her husband's remains.

She was a 40-year-old widow with no higher education, no income and five children ranging from 11 years to 11 months.

Their American dream was literally blown out of the sky.

An FBI investigation, headed by Mark Felt who would later be Deep Throat to Watergate reporters, concluded that one of the 45 people on the Boeing 707 had brought aboard sticks of dynamite. He lit it beneath a rear lavatory and returned to his seat. Parts of the plane were scattered over three states. The fuselage came down in an alfalfa field six miles northwest of Unionville, Mo., on the Iowa line.

"My mom took it hard," said Maureen, who became an 11-year-old assistant mom.

'An amazing circle'

Maureen and her brother, Tom, returned to that field over Memorial Day weekend as the people of Unionville marked the 50th anniversary of a tragedy they say "changed America's air travel forever."

"It's nice to be remembered," she said.

A new black granite monument was unveiled in the town square, and a monument placed there two years ago was moved to the rolling farmland where fate brought together the best and worst of mankind.

Emergency surgery prevented Rosemary from going, and three of her girls stayed with her. Maureen and Tom went, and they read the roll of the victims during the ceremony.

They say they owe a lot to Duane Crawford, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who then taught high school for 17 years. He pieced together details of the crash that none of the victims' families knew. It was published in the Unionville Republican, and a book about the citizens of Putnam County.

His research was a gold mine for a 26-year-old aviation buff in New Zealand who started a blog to find out more about the all-but-forgotten incident. Andrew Russell's blog pulled a lot of Flight 11 families together, and he was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary.

"It's kind of an amazing circle," said Maureen.

No handouts

Members of the Flight 11 families stood one after another and told the same story.

The plane was full of businessmen in the prime of their lives, like 42-year-old Maury, a chemist specializing in paint colors. Most of them were World War II veterans with a wife and adoring little baby-boomers at home.

Their families' lives were shattered, but they never talked about it. They didn't know many details. And talk would only make their mothers cry.

The Hamiltons immediately moved into a 400-square-foot home with Rosemary's sister and her husband. Rosemary had a little life insurance and took a lump payment on Maury's workers' compensation to make a down payment on a home. Even with scrimping, the money ran out at about the same time her Catholic priest offered her a part-time job teaching kindergarten. Eight years later she got a full-time secretarial job.

In 1983, she married a widower she'd known from childhood, retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John "Bud" McIntire of Hilton Head Island. Today, they split their time between homes in Sun City Hilton Head and Poland, Ohio.

All five Hamilton children earned college degrees and have succeeded professionally.

Maureen, an account manager at CareCore National in Bluffton, said, "With God's blessings, our mother's faith and our faith, we've made it. We all know you had to work hard to get what you needed. There wasn't going to be a handout, that's for sure."

Strange twist

Maureen remembers her dad well. He was a 6-foot-2 star athlete in Youngstown. The headline in his hometown was "Ex-Ursuline High star killed in plane crash."

After Pearl Harbor, he interrupted his studies at St. Joseph's College in Indiana, but returned after the war to earn a degree in chemistry. Crawford reports that his color research for Switzer Bros. in Cleveland led to a special paint used on military planes to reduce mid-air collisions.

"Learning was real important to him," Maureen said. "We were homework buddies. He used to always help me with my homework. We think he would be proud to see how we've turned out."

The kids got used to doing without, to being whispered about, to working instead of playing.

Tom grew up with surrogate fathers taking him to his first Indians game and things like that.

He was asked to speak in Unionville in 2010 when the first monument was unveiled.

He said he's often asked, "What was it like growing up without a father?"

He said he never knew the answer because he knew no other way. He then asked his 6-year-old son, Benjamin Harold Hamilton, to come forward. That's how old Tom was when his father's life was so cruelly snuffed out.

"In some sort of bizarre revelation, I'm learning through my own children what I had missed," he said. "The Sam's Club trips, the birthday parties, the 'Around the World' basketball games and the holidays.

"And in an equally puzzling strange twist, the event that occurred here (in 1962) has actually made a positive impact on my life. I look at the needs of my sons differently, no matter how trivial or simple it may seem. It has made me a better father."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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