It was the ultimate nightmare—barely a day after the Sept. 11 East Coast terrorist attacks came word that 16 Husky football fans were killed in the crash of a sightseeing plane in Mexico.
The tragedy occurred during what was supposed to be the highlight of the 2001 season—a weeklong Caribbean cruise with Don James, Sonny Sixkiller and other legendary Husky coaches and players before the much-anticipated Washington-Miami game, scheduled for Sept. 15 in the Orange Bowl. Nearly 1,200 fans signed up for the private Holland America cruise, which was organized by a Seattle travel agency, Northwest Travel.
On Sept. 12, their cruise ship docked in Cozumel, Mexico. Sixteen travelers—including 10 alumni—decided to take a sightseeing flight to the Mayan ruins.
But just after takeoff late that afternoon, as their small plane was returning from the ruins in Chichen Itza to Cozumel, it crashed in a cornfield in the Yucatan Peninsula. All 19 aboard were killed. Investigators are looking at engine failure as a possible cause.
Although those who died in the crash came from many walks of life, they shared a passion for Husky football, and, in many cases, a deep bond with their alma mater.
“These 16 men and women were known for their Husky spirit, generosity and Washington pride,” Gov. Gary Locke said. “I know that the University of Washington and the entire Husky family have suffered a terrible loss. They will be missed by all members of the community.”
During her years as a UW student in the 1980s, Karen Owsley Burks, ’86, was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha, president of her sorority, president of Panhellenic and a member of Mortar Board. Oh, yes, she was also a huge football fan.
In fact, Burks, 37, and three sorority sisters (Sue Dalton, ’85; Julie Gardner, ’87; and Lisa Styer, ’87, who died in the same plane crash) had held season tickets ever since they were students and gathered at Husky Stadium for every game, rain or shine. Burks and two of her sorority sisters signed up for the cruise before the Miami game.
“She was very excited about it,” recalls her younger sister, Sidney Blank, ‘90.
But nothing excited Burks—who earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting and went on to become a CPA—more than being a mother to her girls Kelsey and Emily. “Being a mom was her true love,” Blank says. “She was put on Earth to be a mom.”
Burks, a Seattle resident, was also known for her creativity. “She was very artistic in everything she did,” recalls Blank. “She did floral arrangements, drawing, painting, decorating, crafts. If you ever got a gift from her, you actually got two—the gift itself and the way she decorated and presented it.”
An outgoing person who was not content to be a wallflower, Burks taught vacation Bible school at her church, loved to travel, and more than anything, get together with her family, many of whom live in the greater Seattle area.
“She had no regrets at all,” Blank says. “She knew she was loved.”
The family room in Scott, ’88, and Debbie Columbia’s home is not your average gathering place; it is more like a shrine to the Huskies.
“We have a Husky clock, a toy Husky pickup truck, Husky helmet, stuffed animal Husky dogs, just about anything Husky,” recalls Debbie Columbia. “It’s always been a passion for us.”
Scott Columbia, a Montana native, was a whiz at math and engineering, earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the UW in 1988 and spending 22 years with Boeing, the past five as a well-loved and highly regarded manager of Engineering Information Systems support for product development and the Sonic Cruiser program.
“He was a wonderful man, energetic, knowledgeable, and people loved him,” Debbie says. “He was always smiling and upbeat.”
A Husky season ticket holder since 1987, Columbia, 44, and his wife went on a Caribbean cruise before the 1994 UW-Miami game and were the first to sign up for this year’s cruise.
He even named their cat “Nappers” after former UW running back Napoleon Kauffman.
Shirley, ’45, and Charles, ’52, Genther of Seattle had many things in common. Two of the biggest were a love of adventure and a passion for the University of Washington, and its football team.
Charles held season tickets to Husky football for 42 years (first with his late wife, DeNeece, and later with Shirley, a widow he married after DeNeece died of cancer in 1989). They often took trips and were looking forward to the cruise before the Washington-Miami game.
“They had a suite on the cruise ship next to Don James,” says Genther’s son, Mark, of Seattle. “They were very big fans.”
The Genthers loved adventure, traveling around the world several times and getting away any time they could—including many Husky road games.
They also loved the water. They owned a boat that they took from their Laurelhurst home to Husky Stadium for games, and were always getting away to the San Juans.
Charles, better known to his friends as Chuck, was “a real Renaissance man,” recalls Mark. Former owner of Olympic Chemical Co. in Seattle before he retired, Genther helped build the original family home on Mercer Island, once restored a Model A Ford and was always fixing things up. Shirley loved to paint and create Bonsai gardens.
But getting out to see new things was their real joy, which is why they did not want to pass up a chance to see the Mayan ruins on the flight that took their lives. “I can’t imagine them sitting on the boat while there was some excursion going on,” Mark says. “They always wanted to see something new.”
An avid golfer and member of the Whidbey Golf and Country Club in Oak Harbor, Mary Kearney also had a passion for sports, including Husky football—even though she did not attend the UW.
In fact, her love for sports could be summed up very succinctly: “Big time,” says her younger brother, John Hartley of Bremerton. Their mother, Betty Hartley, a UW student in the 1930s, always listened to Husky games on the radio when Mary and her brothers were growing up.
Kearney, 57, attended the Huskies’ season opener with Michigan, then went to SeaTac so she would be ready to catch her flight to Florida the next morning to join the Husky Tailgate at Sea cruise. From her SeaTac hotel, she called John. “She remembered that she hadn’t told [older brother] Peter there was going to be a Caribbean cruise. She wanted to make sure he knew so that he could tell his golfing buddies and rub it in,” he says.
In addition to being known as a great friend and talented weaver, Kearney, a native of Portland, Ore., was renowned for her ability for organization. She always planned family gatherings and parties, and parlayed that skill into a career that saw her rise to vice president of human resources for a San Diego savings and loan company.
“Her nickname was ‘the organizer,’“ says her older brother, Peter. “She could really make things go.”
Kearney—who earned an academic scholarship to attend Seattle University and held numerous corporate positions with Continental Trailways and Holiday Inn—retired in 1993 and moved to Whidbey Island to live with and care for her late parents through their last years.
“She was a very warm person, very smart, class valedictorian of her high school class, friendly to everyone,” recalls her brother, John. “She was more than my sister. She was my best friend.”
Hard-working, diligent, caring—these are just a few of the words that describe Barbara A. Martin, ’67, of Lake Forest Park. She was also a loyal Husky football fan. She and her husband, Ron, have had season tickets since 1967.
“We sometimes would ride our bikes from our home down to Husky Stadium to tailgate before games,” recalls Ron, ’66, ’67, ’79. “When we got a little older, we didn’t ride our bikes, but we still tailgated.”
Ron met “Barbie,” a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, while both were UW students in the fall of 1967. They were married the following August, and recently celebrated their 34th anniversary.
Born in Alexandria, Va., Martin, 56, grew up in Seattle. She attended Magnolia Elementary School, Catherine Blaine Junior High and Queen Anne High before enrolling at the UW.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the UW in 1967 and spent 31 years as a beloved social studies and English teacher at Meadowdale Middle School in Lynnwood. While she and Ron didn’t have children, she considered her students as her own.
“She was a real taskmaster and made her kids work hard,” recalls Ron, a Meadowdale High School swimming coach and retired teacher himself. “Even after she retired, she continued to work as a substitute because she enjoyed teaching. She rarely had a negative word for anyone.”
Lois and Dwight Mitchell were fixtures in Oak Harbor for four decades—as well as regular visitors to Seattle to see their beloved Huskies, Seahawks and Mariners in action.
A native of Puyallup, Lois, 60, was a home economics teacher at Oak Harbor School and Oak Harbor Junior High for 30 years. Dwight, 64, was a front-end and transmission mechanic at a local Ford dealership for more than 25 years. They were both retired.
Although they did not go to school at the University of Washington, they came down to Husky Stadium to attend football games on a regular basis, in addition to catching Seahawk and Mariner games. They wintered in Arizona and were avid fans of Mariner spring training games as well, says Lois’ older brother, Tom Svendsen of Yakima.
Born and raised in Oak Harbor, Dwight also served on the city council and was a major supporter of the Oak Harbor Marina, which opened in 1974. He also pushed to make the city open to the outside world.
Lois was known for her outgoing personality. “She was involved in everything,” her brother recalls. “At school, she was always getting involved in extra activities because they knew she could get it done. She was a real community person.”
The Mitchells loved to spend time on their 39-foot Bayliner “Sounder,” taking monthlong trips to the San Juans and Canada’s Gulf Islands every summer with one of their best friends, fellow Oak Harbor resident Ted Zylstra. He died in the same plane crash.
Linda and Larry Schwab did not attend the University of Washington. Still, they were lifelong Husky fans—and ardent proponents of the University.
“They truly appreciated everything the University did for a lot of people,” says Roger Schwab, Larry’s brother. “They thought very highly of the ‘U’—and their favorite charities were helping the UW’s student-athletes and donating to Children’s Hospital.”
The Schwabs, both 50, met as teenagers in Auburn and were married right out of high school. They signed up for the Husky Tailgate at Sea cruise to celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary—which was 11 days after they died together in the plane crash.
Larry, who worked as head supervisor and general manager for Professional Building Contractors, a Des Moines company that does soundproofing modifications in homes near airports, and Linda, a corporate executive for Qwest, traveled extensively to UW road games, among the many trips they took together. “They shared many attributes of UW alumni—they shared in the values and the value that the University provided,” Roger says.
The lifelong Auburn residents may have loved the UW, but they were absolutely crazy about each other. They dedicated their lives not only to each other, but their son, David, of Maple Valley, and their grandson, Brandon, whom they spent much time with. “Their lives were so intertwined with each other,” Roger recalls. “They lived life to the fullest.”
Like her dad and her brother before her, Lisa Marie Styer, ’87, came to the University of Washington to study civil engineering in the 1980s. While she loved her field, she also loved belonging to her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, where she became best friends with three fellow sorority sisters—Sue Dalton, ‘85; Julie Gardner, ’87; and Karen Burks, ’86. Styer, Burks and Dalton went on the cruise together, and Burks was on the plane with Styer when it crashed.
Styer was rituals chair for her sorority, and was renowned for her ability to attract new members. “She had a real knack for befriending people,” says her brother, Joe.
She was also a huge Husky football fan, and she and her three closest sorority sisters had their own ritual before Husky football games. They would breakfast together, then walk down the Burke-Gilman Trail to the stadium, where they had season tickets ever since they were students.
During the games, Lisa would often meet with her brothers and other family members who were in their own season seats, or gather afterward at a local watering hole to celebrate.
After earning her degree in engineering in 1987, Styer, 36, went on to a fast-rising career at Boeing, where she was a customer engineer and worked with Boeing’s clients on the Boeing 737.
But what meant the most to Styer, a music devotee, was her family and friends. Her Green Lake home was the ritual meeting place for the Luminaria festival each December. Everyone would gather for appetizers and then go singing. She loved kids and made sure everyone knew their kids were welcome at her home.
“She was sharp as a tack, always curious to learn more and never seemed uncomfortable with any topic,” recalls her brother, Matt, ’86. “Her ability to laugh and make people comfortable was so special.”
Judy, ’62, and Geoff Vernon, ’65, were childhood sweethearts at Ballard High School in Seattle, went to the University of Washington together and were about to move into their dream home on Meydenbauer Bay in Clyde Hill mere weeks after they were supposed to return from their much anticipated Husky Tailgate at Sea cruise.
They spent their lives working to make their community better, getting involved in everything from the PTA when their sons, Trevor and Greg, were in school, to serving in many other capacities with a host of community organizations.
Geoff, 59, devoted untold hours to volunteer service: he was president of the UW Alumni Association in 1999-2000 and a longtime board member; he was on Seattle University’s Board of Regents, chair of Seafair during its 50th anniversary, and served on the boards of Hope Heart Institute, the YMCA of Greater Seattle, the Seattle-King County Chapter of the American Red Cross and numerous other organizations. He had been president and chief operating officer of Vernon Publications until his retirement in 1998.
Judy, 59, was Geoff’s partner every step of the way. She stayed at home with her youngest child until he was in high school, then worked with Geoff for about 10 years.
She helped start an investment club with friends, planned family parties and was known for her penchant to try just about anything.
They adored their family and friends, loved to travel just about anywhere—and loved the University of Washington. One of the last pictures of Geoff and Judy taken aboard the cruise ship showed Geoff wearing a tuxedo—with a purple tie.
“Of all the organizations Geoff served,” recalls his friend and fellow UWAA board member Cory Carlson, ’81, “he was most of all a Husky.”
For years, Judy and Larry Wade, ’63, ’64, used to take their 40-foot cruiser to Husky Stadium to watch football games on Saturdays in the fall. The sinking of their boat in Puget Sound in a freak storm two years ago didn’t stop them.
The Wades were fixtures at Husky Stadium, bringing their three daughters along with them for tailgating parties in their “woody” station wagon and then to games since the girls were in junior high school. “We grew up doing that,” recalls their daughter, Melinda Wade Gardner.
Judy, 58, and Larry, 60, met while both were students at the UW in the early 1960s. Judy eventually dropped out to help put Larry through school, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1963 and a master’s degree the following year. Larry helped put himself through school working on the survey crew for the UW’s building department, while Judy was a member of a sorority during her time as a student.
Larry was president of Hammond Collier Wade Livingstone Associates, a consulting firm specializing in civil engineering. The company has 50 employees in offices in Fremont and Wenatchee.
He was also known as a perfectionist who made sure any project he tackled turned out just so. Even their home in the Blue Ridge section of Seattle was known every year as the area’s most elaborately decorated during the holidays. It had so many lights, it often required Larry to borrow power from neighbors.
Larry also was very involved with the UW civil engineering program, serving every year as a judge in the concrete canoe competition the UW entered with other major university civil engineering programs.
Judy Wade was a community volunteer who donated her time to work at First Place School, Woodland Park Zoo and the Blue Ridge Community Center. She was also an avid tennis player.
“She was just full of life,” Gardner recalls. “Everyone fell in love with her.”
The Wades, who loved to travel on UW Travels tours in Europe and attend out-of-state Husky games with other couples, were very excited about the cruise before the Miami game. After all, they were going to celebrate their 38th wedding anniversary the day before the game.
The Wades are survived by their three daughters—Gardner, Brenda Carlson and Stephanie Wade—and also by two young granddaughters, Hailey and Kaitlin Carlson.
Like any doting father, Theodore D. Zylstra, ’57, used to sing his daughter Debbie to sleep when she was an infant. His choice of song? “Bow Down to Washington.
His love for Husky football and the University of Washington were legendary in his hometown of Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island. A 1957 graduate of the UW School of Law, the Oak Harbor born-and-raised Zylstra was a community volunteer and successful attorney before he retired last year.
He served on the Washington State Bar Association’s Board of Governors from 1983-86, and was a member of the American Bar Association, the American Trial Lawyers Association and the Island County Bar Association.
But Zylstra, 67, (known locally as Ted) was even more renowned for his sense of humor and dedication to Husky football. He’d sometimes walk into a Seattle restaurant, tell the maitre d’ that he was an ambassador from another country and wanted the best seat in the house. “Half the time, it worked,” says his son-in-law, Christon Skinner.
Once a partner in four law practices, he opened Zylstra Beeksma and Waller in 1978, and retired last year. During his time as a UW law student, he was a member of the Order of the Coif, an academic fraternity for law students, and was on the law review.
He held season tickets to Husky football for 37 years and traveled to many road games. An only child, he also took great pride in his family. “He just wanted to be remembered as a person of strong faith who wanted to do what was right for his clients, his family and his friends,” his cousin, Robert, says.
Zylstra is survived by his daughter, Debbie, of Oak Harbor, and his son, Bradley Zylstra, of Renton.