One of the photos that hangs in an alcove of Mary Jane Tolley’s (Educ ’66) brick rancher in Richmond, Va., shows a handsome German shepherd. The dog’s name was Stürmisch, which means “stormy” in German.
On Nov. 14, 1970, Stürmisch had a tumor on one toe, and Tolley was advised to stay home with the pet instead of accompanying her husband, Rick (Educ ’64), to the weekend’s football game. He was head coach of Marshall University’s team and was trying to turn around a losing season. Mary Jane could only listen on the radio as East Carolina University survived a last-minute drive to beat Marshall that day, 17-14.
Rick Tolley, disgruntled with his team’s performance, told a reporter after the game, “We had a nice flight down, but we played like we were still flying.”
That remark would soon carry eerie overtones. On that night’s return flight through mist and rain to Huntington, W.Va., the DC-9 clipped some trees on its descent and crashed into a hillside. All 75 people aboard—players, coaches, fans, flight crew—died.
In one stroke, Mary Jane Tolley’s life was shattered. “I don’t think many people could appreciate what it was really like,” she says. “I lost not only my husband, but also 25 friends at one time. They were just all gone.”
The crash still ranks as one of the nation’s greatest sports tragedies, but it did not claim Mary Jane Tolley among its victims. She pieced together a full life, planting new roots in Richmond and teaching English and creative writing at J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico County.
Now retired, she walks and swims regularly, reads voraciously and rarely misses a football game at UVA, where she received a master’s degree in education in 1966, and where her father, Raymond S. Edmundson (Col ’29, Grad ’30), was head of the geology department.
While time has dulled the pain of 1970, recent events give it a fresh edge. A new motion picture, We Are Marshall, depicts the Thundering Herd’s rebuilding years immediately after the crash. Rick Tolley, portrayed by Robert Patrick, has a minor presence. Mary Jane Tolley is there, too, portraying herself in the final scene showing survivors gathered around the memorial fountain on the Marshall campus.
“I think it’s wonderful that this movie is being made,” she says. “It’s giving us a certain amount of closure.”
Some bitterness still gnaws at her. Her blue eyes get steely and her voice sharpens when she talks about causes of the crash. “It never should have happened. It was an absolute fiasco,” she says.
She immersed herself in the details, attending hearings in Huntington and Washington, D.C. The National Transportation Safety Board’s official report cited either an altimetry system error or improper use of cockpit instrument data as the most likely cause of the plane’s low descent. Tolley believes the plane was overloaded. She also says the airport was not authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to handle a DC-9.
“I blame the FAA more than anybody. They never should have allowed that plane to take off,” she says.
But the crash does not define her memory of Rick. All business in front of his players, he had other sides she grew to know and love during their years together. They met in Roanoke, Va., where she had begun her teaching career and he was a lineman and linebacker on Virginia Tech’s football team. He’d grown up in the coal country of Mullens, W.Va., excelling in baseball as much as in football.
Her upbringing in Charlottesville was less gritty but no less boisterous. The family home on Virginia Avenue in her early years neighbored some fraternity houses. “I would hear [musical] combos at night, and it was really loud. I enjoyed it, though. When I went to college, I had trouble going to sleep because it was so quiet,” she says with a laugh.
Tolley graduated from Charlottesville’s Lane High School and says she didn’t consciously plan to follow in her father’s footsteps as a teacher. “I’m sure he influenced me without my being aware of it at the time,” she says. “Education was always important in our family.”
Mary Jane and Rick shared many interests, including football. They married in 1963 and moved to Charlottesville the following year, where Mary Jane taught at her old high school and Rick balanced work as an assistant coach for the UVA baseball team and as a full-time graduate student. He received a master’s degree in physical education in 1964 from UVA.
In 1965, they moved to Ferrum College. There, a close relationship developed between Rick and legendary coach Hank Norton. “He was my first full-time assistant. He was a great football coach,” Norton says. “He was a disciplinarian and a hard-nosed tough guy who the players liked.”
Those traits led to a job at Wake Forest University, but Rick soon was out on the street when the head coach was fired. Norton helped connect Rick with Marshall’s program, where he was hired as an assistant. There again, the head coach was fired; this time, Rick moved up, not out.
The program he inherited at age 29 was not enviable. Marshall hadn’t won a game in three years, and morale was low. In 1969, however, Rick rallied his players to a 21-16 win over Bowling Green before a rain-soaked Huntington crowd. “It was a glorious moment,” Mary Jane Tolley says. “It was the biggest celebration of the year.”
There were more glory moments to come, and she shared in them. “I always enjoyed football, so it was just a great life for me.”
They had no children—just Stürmisch. When tragedy struck in 1970, the German shepherd became a source of solace.
“I think Stürmisch helped keep her going,” says Norton, a native of Huntington who shared in the communal grief of the crash. “Stürmisch was kind of a reminder of Rick.”
Other reminders have made this an emotional year. Tolley learned of the movie in February, and in April attended a ceremony to induct Norton into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. “It was amazing how all those [Ferrum] players came back, players I hadn’t seen for so long,” she says.
She traveled to Huntington in March to film the movie’s final scene, and its December premiere there also promises to revive memories.
Tears can forge bright bonds, however. While visiting Marshall years ago, she was asked to speak to the football team during practice. She told the players how proud she was of them for continuing the program.
One player lingered after she spoke. “He said, ‘I have to tell you who I am. My father played for your husband. He was on the team, and now I’m here playing for Marshall.’
“The next thing I knew, both of us were crying, tears running down our faces,” Tolley says. “I told him, ‘I know your father would have been proud of you for coming here.’”