Classmates honor those lost in homecoming tragedy 30 years ago
This morning, at 10:30 a.m., Paul Morony, a graduate of the Spencer High School class of 1983, will be facing a flood of memories.
With microphone in hand, surrounded by the familiar surroundings of a gym where he played his high school ball, he will be reminded of three friends who are no longer with him.
Morony and his classmates will mark the 30th anniversary of their homecoming events - with the current Spencer High School student body - by remembering three members of the class who perished in a head-on collision just south of Milford while their homecoming dance wrapped up in Spencer on Oct. 9, 1982.
His talk is part of a week of events the 30-year graduates have planned to honor the three young men who weren't with them on graduation day.
"We were on our way back from the Lakes to Spencer," Morony recalled. "The dance was over and we were going back to hang out."
The Fiat was full. Pete Anson drove, Kyle VandeBerg sat next to him in the passenger's seat, and Steve Rehnstrom and Morony were traveling in the back seat.
A Cadillac, driven by a Spencer junior and his date, was traveling north on U.S. Highway 71, headed to the Lakes.
"I remember leaving where we were and then waking up in the hospital," Morony said.
The Cadillac crossed the center line and the two vehicles collided, just yards from an Iowa State Patrol officer who was monitoring traffic speed.
"Nobody remembers why," Morony said.
Anson was killed instantly. VandeBerg was revived on two occasions before passing at the scene.
The other driver and his date sustained "a couple of broken bones," according to Morony, but "nothing life-threatening."
The Spirit Lake Ambulance responded to the accident to transport Morony and Rehnstrom. The second patrol officer to arrive at the scene, Art Bates, recognized the kids and insisted they be taken to Spencer Hospital rather than the emergency care services at Spirit Lake.
Rehnstrom died at the hospital. Morony sustained a broken arm, jaw and nose; a compound fracture to the femur; and a collapsed lung.
"I heard the sirens that night when I got home," classmate Stacey Anderson recalled. "I learned about it the next day at work. I kept it together ok at work but I was devastated. When I came home, my mom looked at me and I just started crying."
Anderson said the impact not only affected the students and the school, it was a cloud hanging over the whole community.
"Nothing like that had ever happened," Anderson said. "We lost a classmate in ninth grade, but it was different circumstances. This pretty much set the tone for the year."
While Morony joined the rest of the community in mourning the loss of the three seniors, he was also dealing with pains of guilt.
"I had a real tough time dealing with it because I had a lot of guilt," he said. "I survived. Why didn't it happen to me? Why couldn't it have been me instead of those three?"
He has come to grips with those feelings with years of healing, but he is constantly reminded of the loss.
"When it comes to myself and those families, we're reminded everyday," Morony said. "It's something that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
"My son, Kyle Steven Edward (Edward was Pete's given name) is his given name. I didn't know if I was going to have three sons so he was going to get all three of their names. That's a way for me to honor those guys. ... Just in my boy I see a bit of each one of them in him.
Morony continued, "When I'm listening to the radio, I have a song for each guy. If I go into a place with a juke box, I'll play the song and go off by myself. It's still a very emotional thing from me."
When he wakes in the morning, he is reminded when he brushes his teeth and needs to brush the dentures, which replaced his teeth lost in the accident, separately. He has the scars on his arm, the pain in his body to remind him.
Morony is not the only member of the class who remembers.
The memorial flag pole and landscaping in the northeast corner of Dale Norton Field complex, dedicated to Anson, VandeBerg and Rehnstrom, caught the eye of a fellow 1983 graduate and spurred a class service project.
"It started with another classmate, Lisa (Metcalf) Guinn. She drove past the school and noticed the trees (by the corner of the football field) were needing some attention. One had died, one had weather damage and only one was still living at the memorial," Anderson explained.
She continued, "I called the school to talk about the trees and learned she (Guinn) had already called. We contacted the school and we were talking about our class reunion coming up. I was talking about putting up a Facebook page in remembrance. From those two things, other things grew."
The class will now be represented at today's high school pep rally, and Morony will speak to the students. A Facebook page "Class of 1983 We Remember" has been created. The group completed landscaping and replacing the trees at the memorial site, and have established a memorial fund at Farmers Trust and Savings Bank in Spencer to provide ongoing maintenance and improvements at the site. This afternoon, flowers will be placed at each of the gravesites.
Tonight, prior to the start of the game, the class will rededicate the site with a moment of silence and a balloon release.
Anderson is hopeful anyone with ties to the class or the young men who were lost, will participate in the events.
She believes all who take part will receive additional healing through their participation in today's activities.
Morony said his talk to the students, teachers, administration and fellow classmates this morning will offer a simple message.
"It's all about choices," Morony said. "When it comes to making a choice on something, if there's a doubt at all in your mind that you probably shouldn't be doing this, then you shouldn't be."
Morony noted that alcohol wasn't directly involved with the accident, but added, "We were going places we shouldn't have been going. Even if you have a responsible driver, that doesn't make it a responsible choice."
He continued, "People look at things like they're 10-foot tall and bulletproof. 'Nothing's going to happen to me.' And it may not. But that one time it does, you don't have any idea how devastating it's going to be to everyone. ... That one time it comes back to haunt you, it comes back to haunt you."
Following the accident, Morony said, the idea of an after-prom plan emerged as a means to keep students from heading up to the Lakes following an event.
Talking about his friends all these years later, in a building where they spent a lot of time together, Morony admitted won't be easy.
"It's not something that I want to forget. It's too big a part of my life to forget. That's what's on our plaque, 'We Remember.' ... It'll be tough when I get to a certain part of it. When I talk about the guys, it will be really tough."
* Paul Morony will speak at The Fieldhouse at 10:30 a.m. Contact Stacey Anderson at 346-8965 or go to the Facebook page: Class of 1983 We Remember for more information. The memorial fund has been established at Farmers Trust and Savings Bank in Spencer.