Loss of Baylor's 'Immortal Ten':
Tragedy for the ages

By: Brice Cherry, Waco Tribune-Herald

Feb. 28, 2006

The impact of the crash reverberates to this day.

Baylor basketball has experienced its share of scandal and loss over the past century, but nothing quite so tragic as the events of Friday, Jan. 22, 1927.

That, as all Baylor freshmen come to learn, was the day 10 Baylor students – including seven members of the basketball team – died when a train struck the team bus at a crossing in Round Rock. The dead were mourned as "The Immortal Ten," and even now, 79 years later, their story endures.

The weather that morning was typical of Central Texas winters, with near-freezing temperatures and a heavy cloud of mist and fog blanketing the ground. Baylor was scheduled to play Texas in Austin, and the Bears were hoping to avenge a 22-15 loss to the Longhorns earlier that month.

That season was the first for Baylor coach Ralph Wolf, who would spend 14 more years in that capacity and still ranks as the second-winningest coach in school history.

Wolf hesitated to travel with the team that day because his wife was pregnant and near delivery, Todd Copeland wrote in his definitive Baylor Line article on the Immortal Ten in 2002. But the Bears had lost four straight, three in conference play, and Wolf chose to make the trip.

The team bus left Waco with 21 men on board, including the driver, 19-year-old freshman Joe Potter. Another passenger, Ivey Foster, joined the team in Temple. Foster, a freshman from Taylor who played football and basketball for the Cub team, had hitchhiked to Temple before flagging down the bus.

The wet road left mud splatter across the bus' windshield, slowing the trip considerably. As the bus arrived in Round Rock, the journey had lasted31/2 hours. It was about to end.

Creeping along at 22 miles per hour, the bus approached an open, level-grade railroad crossing. With Potter manually cranking the windshield wipers as he negotiated the unfamiliar road, he and his passengers were unaware that the "Sunshine Special," a northbound passenger train from the International and Great Northern Railroad Company, was barreling toward the crossing.

As the bus came within 100 feet of the tracks, Wolf suddenly spotted the train and shouted a word of warning to Potter. With no time to stop the vehicle, Potter hammered the accelerator to the floor in an attempt to beat the train.

"The situation's peril was immediately obvious to everyone on board," Copeland wrote, as the passengers began scrambling to the front door and the windows in an attempt to escape. One player, Weir Washam of Waco, managed to do so, diving out of a window with a push from longtime friend Clyde "Abe" Kelley.

For most of the others, however, it was too late. The bus had begun to slide diagonally across the train's path, placing the back corner of the vehicle directly in front of the engine. The impact of the collision could be heard for miles.

Several men were killed on impact, while four more died later in hospitals or en route. In all, the casualties totaled 10 – Kelley, Foster, William Winchester, W.E. Murray, Merle Dudley, Sam Dillow, Jack Castellaw, Bob Hailey, R.L. Hannah and James Walker.

"The train swept through the bus just as you would sweep through the room," Louis Slade, one of the surviving players told reporters later in the day. "Had we just had time to think, many of the boys would have jumped. In the short time we had, though, we could not get the doors opened and those who escaped were simply luckily knocked out of the bus."

The news of the accident spread quickly across the state and nation, as Dave Cheavens, the managing editor of the Baylor Lariat and a passenger on the bus, sent a telegram to the Associated Press soon after the calamity.

Baylor president Samuel P. Brooks traveled with athletic director Morley Jennings and business manager George Belew to Taylor, where the dead and injured were taken via the train's baggage car. The three divided their time visiting the morgue, the hospital and a hotel where some of the students' families had arrived.

Grief over the accident swept over the small Baylor campus, which totaled around 1,600 students in 1927. More than 3,000 people attended a memorial service in the auditorium of Baylor's chapel building, which had doubled as the team's basketball court and was awash in flowers and green-and-gold streamers.

Almost immediately, the dead became known as the "Immortal Ten," as Waco Times-Herald writer Jack Hawkins eulogized them in the Jan. 23 issue. Hawkins wrote, "Though Death's icy fingers have written 'Finis' across the life of each of the immortal ten who are today mourned, their memory will never perish."

Hawkins' words were prophetic in many ways. The tragedy accelerated safety measures for railroad crossings across the state, and eight years later, the first highway overpass in Texas was constructed at the accident site.

Additionally, the story of the Immortal Ten has been passed down from generation to generation of Baylor students, becoming one of the school's most hallowed traditions. Every homecoming weekend, the story is told again at the freshman mass meeting, and the names of the 10 victims are read.

One of the victims, Kelley, has taken on hero status for his role in pushing Washam from the bus. In the fall of 1927, the Baylor football team honored Kelley's memory by not replacing him as team captain.

For the most part, though, the victims have come to represent the unifying spirit of the Baylor student body and the importance of remembering the past. Through the savagery and tragedy of the crash, they have gained immortality as a never-forgotten thread in the rich tapestry that is Baylor's history.

Perhaps Henry Trantham, head of Baylor's athletic council in 1927, captured it best at the campus memorial service. "Their lives are lived, but not in vain," Trantham said. "God's purpose is accomplished in them. The things they stood for are part of the rich heritage of Baylor; their unconquerable spirit will hover around us in the years to come."

Book [The Immortal Ten: The Definitive Account of the 1927 Tragedy and Its Legacy at Baylor University] can be purchased here: Amazon.com

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