• Andrew Pettit

A Preponderance of Angels

Fraternal Brothers Meet the Man in the White Cadillac

As I chronicle the life of Al Oerter, much of it through his words and eyes, I am struck by the number of times he experienced some form of divine intervention. Perhaps it was an unknown power, cosmic energy or other force that took hold of him to dramatically impact his life. Angelically speaking, this is a tale of one such instance.

It was a cool fall day in 1957 at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Al Oerter was a year removed from his Olympic gold medal discus performance in Melbourne and had won the Big 7 Conference and NCAA National Championship titles the previous spring. He had gained notoriety on campus, but not with everyone.

There was a story told by former Kansas broadcaster Tom Hedrick, who was the chapter advisor at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, of which Al was a member:

[On that October, Friday], Hedrick was hanging around the football practice field where Oerter was practicing the discus that day. "I turn around," Hedrick said, "And I don't know how to put this, other than to say I saw a young man and a young woman necking in the bleachers." Hedrick figured he ought to put a stop to the young love birds. "Hey," he yelled to the couple. "You better stop that or Oerter is bound to put one right in your lap." "What are you talking about," the young man responded angrily. "Who does he think he is, the Olympic champ?" "Well," Hedrick said smiling, "As a matter of fact he is." [1]

Al had continued to train and practice hard that week as well as contend with the academic overload of college classes and assignments. At the conclusion of practice, Al joined his Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother, Jim Richards, to go see Jim’s brother play high school Friday night football over in Missouri, and then spend the weekend at the Richards home.

It was about a sixty-mile trip to the football stadium, where Oerter, wearing a tie and a brown sport coat, and Richards watched the game, already bone tired from a tough week. After the game, they headed for Jim’s house several miles away along rolling, hilly, curving backroads under a moonless sky.

Far ahead, another motorist’s engine died, right on the crest of a rise in the road, and he coasted down the small hill and off to the side. The driver then began to walk ahead in search of the nearest garage or town where he could get assistance.

Jim Richards was driving along the dark, country roads and doing about 45 to 50 mph; not killing it. Al was slumped over in the front passenger seat, chin to chest, and fast asleep. They came over a rise in the road, dipped down, and suddenly there was a deafening sound of crunching metal and shattering glass. It felt like they had smashed into a cement wall. They had hit that disabled car full out. The driver had not set the parking brake and the vehicle had rolled back into the middle of the road. Richards didn’t know what hit them, or what they hit.

Jim smashed into the steering column and dashboard, severely bruising his sternum, chest and knees. Stunned, but not knocked out, Richard’s looked to his right but did not see Oerter. As his vision cleared, he saw a form out on the hood of the car. It was Al, who had launched like a torpedo, head first through the windshield, and lay sprawled down to his waist over the crumbled hood. Unconscious. Jim thought his Delta brother was dead.

Richard’s gathered his strength, and despite the pain in his legs and torso, gripped onto the back of Oerter’s belt with both hands and began yanking his friend’s large body back inside the car. On one of the last tugs, Al’s head and neck bounced right onto and through the shards of broken glass left in place at the bottom of the windshield. The glass dug deep into his throat, neck and nose, and he started to bleed heavily.

Jim panicked, not knowing what to do. What could he do? He looked out and saw no houses, no farms, and no lights on this darkened, country Missouri road. The driver of the disabled car was long gone. Oerter’s brown sport coat was completely soaked in his blood.

Richards was unable to remember how much time had passed when he saw headlights through the rear window. Pulling alongside the crumpled car was a white Cadillac. A man got out and looked through the driver’s side window. He seemed to be assessing the condition of the occupants. “Can you walk?” the man asked. Jim nodded,” I think so.” The man helped get Jim out of the car.

The man pulled out two white handkerchiefs, leaned into the car, and applied them against Al’s badly cut-opened throat. He looked over his shoulder at Jim and said calmly,” Right over that hill back there where you had just turned…there’s a house. It had lights on. Go now. Call for an ambulance.” Jim limped heroically away and disappeared into the night.

The man stayed with the badly injured Oerter. He removed his and Al’s neckties and tied them around the handkerchiefs and the wound to keep pressure on Al’s throat.

No one knows how much later, but Al woke up for a moment and remembers seeing the bright flashing lights of police cars and an ambulance. He sensed that they were having trouble getting him onto a stretcher because he was so heavy. He knew at that instant that this was bad. He lost consciousness again.

The ambulance headed to a hospital in Independence, where they threw Al onto a table in the ER. Immediately, they began sticking him with needles and were preparing to stitch him up, while a nurse held an arm down. Al suddenly woke up, and sensing he was being hurt again and wanting to escape, grabbed the nurse and threw her over the table with one arm.

The restraints came out and Oerter’s head, chest and legs were pinned down and a sedative applied. The doctors could see that the gash in his neck had scratched the fat layer covering his jugular vein. If it had been another one sixteenth of an inch closer, he would have bled out. They sewed him up.

Let’s just say Al didn’t like the hospital environment. The next day he insisted on being discharged but they wouldn’t let him go. So, Al, still badly hurt, checked himself out and went to stay at Jim Richards home. He then wanted to go back to the University of Kansas, where they put him directly into the school infirmary.

For the first time since the accident, Al looked at himself in the mirror. Even he was shocked at how badly beat up he was. He would later recall,” It had chopped out my throat, it had chopped out my nose. I couldn’t hear anything because of the dried blood in my ears. They wouldn’t give me tweezers so I used dining utensils to dig the blood out.”

Al’s father came out from New York and had to take a step back when he first saw his son’s black eyes and bandages. He helped to take care of things but there was really nothing he could do except be there while Al healed. Al had plastic surgery done on his nose but could never repair the gash in his throat because it was so deep. He was thankful and “Blessed with a good, thick German head, that allowed me to go cleanly through the windshield,” he said with a smile.

On that Friday night in October, after the ambulance sped off towards Independence, the man in the white Cadillac drove away on that dark country road, never to be seen or heard from again. The Oerter's got the word out to sports columnists and advertised in The Kansas City Star, the local Missouri paper where the accident took place, and in the Lawrence paper. Al just wanted to thank the man who saved his life. But, it was not to be. Al surmised that it might have been a guy who was traveling through, saw a problem, took care of it, and kept traveling.

Thirty years later, Al told me, “If there is a guardian angel I have on this Earth, he showed up that evening in a white Cadillac.” No kidding. It was not the first time, and it would not be the last.

Al Oerter, Cover of Delta Tau Delta Magazine, 1956

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References

[1] Excerpt from http://www.kansan.com/news/most-celebrated-ku-athlete-passes-away/article_38a052b3-4692-5fd0-93b9-0ff48ec96f90.html

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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