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The Spirit Behind a Tragedy

Rapid City High School’s 1968 varsity basketball cheerleaders were (from left) Terry Blanton, Shirley Landstrom, Jan Glaze, Kay McNutt, Gail Flohr and Diana McCluskey. All died in a plane crash while returning from the boys State A basketball tournament in Sioux Falls.


If your school lost an entire cheerleading squad in an accident, what could you possibly say when reporters call for comments?

It might be tempting to keep the conversation broad and philosophical, focusing on that thin line between life and death, how tomorrow is promised to no one, and what might have been. Understandably, there was plenty of talk like that as Rapid City mourned six cheerleaders after a long-ago St. Patrick’s Day plane crash.

But the girls’ high school principal took a different tack and kept his remarks down to earth, emphasizing a particular skill the young women developed collectively. “They were the kind who would keep a crowd in line,” Donald Varcoe told the Rapid City Journal just hours after the crash, “the kind who would quiet down booing at a ball game.”

Cheerleading was why the girls were aboard the plane in the first place. By telling the public that cheerleading was more than showy fun, and that these six knew it and lived up to their responsibility, Varcoe paid a beautiful tribute. Who knows? Maybe his remark was the first spark that eventually led to the Spirit of Six Award, honoring those girls and presented to one outstanding cheerleading squad at each of South Dakota’s state high school basketball championship tournaments.

The crash happened in 1968, a vastly different time in Rapid City and the nation. There was just one public high school in Rapid then, close to downtown (the building houses the Rapid City Performing Arts Center today). The crash site was Rapid City Municipal Airport, and it had no firefighting units of its own — a fact that provoked considerable community angst after the accident, although no one believed firefighters immediately at hand could have saved lives in this case.

In 1968 no American was basking in naïve contentment, or believing that death spared the young. It was the terrible year of the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, violent race riots, and a steady stream of coffins from Vietnam. In fact for Lead High School, the other West River school along with Rapid City to qualify for the boys’ State A basketball tournament in Sioux Falls that year, the scheduling couldn’t have been worse. On the tournament’s second day Lead would pause for the funeral mass of 22-year-old James Lien, killed by enemy fire while on river patrol in Vietnam.

On Tuesday, March 12, Rapid City High School students were dismissed from afternoon classes to attend a noisy pre-tournament pep rally. Cobbler basketball players were introduced, drama students performed a Bonnie and Clyde skit, and the basketball cheerleaders took charge with lively yells and well-rehearsed choreography. There were three seniors and three juniors on the cheerleading squad.

Seniors included Shirley Landstrom, Kay McNutt, and squad captain Jan Glaze. Kay possessed a real talent for vocal music. Jan, eldest of five Glaze sisters, was reigning Cobbler homecoming queen and planned to attend the University of Wyoming in the fall. Shirley was active in vocal music, and her dad, Ivan Landstrom, was a Rapid City businessman whose ventures included aviation. He had offered to fly the girls to Sioux Falls and back.

Terry Blanton, Gail Flohr and Diana McCluskey were the juniors. Terry sang in All State Chorus and wore a seemingly perpetual smile. Diana was involved in student government, ski club and, away from school, Jobs Daughters. Gail, the only cheerleader not born in Rapid City, was a Florida native who moved to the Black Hills at age 13. With her warm personality, Gail made friends and fit in immediately.

Wednesday the cheerleaders boarded the twin-engine Beechcraft 18 plane that Ivan Landstrom would pilot. Other passengers were Shirley’s mom, Mary Landstrom, and cheerleader advisor and chaperone Dorothy Lloyd.

They arrived safely in Sioux Falls, and the next day the Cobblers played Miller in the tournament’s opening session, with a big crowd of 8,000 watching. The game was a rematch of sorts, because the same teams met to open the 1967 tournament. Rapid City won then, but in 1968 Miller’s hot-shooting Al Nissen quieted Cobbler fans by scoring 34 points en route to a 59-51 win. Just like that, Rapid City was knocked from the championship bracket.

The Cobblers bounced back the next day, defeating Vermillion 61-53. Saturday afternoon they won by the same score, this time over Aberdeen Roncalli to clinch fifth place. With Rapid City playing early instead of Saturday night, Jan Glaze was free to travel the short distance to Lennox, where her cousin Linda Steever was getting married.

At the wedding reception Jan’s aunt, Mavis Steever, invited Jan to spend Saturday night in Lennox. Then she could travel home by car with her parents Sunday.

“But she said no,” Mavis recalled recently. “She said with the basketball season over, this trip would be the last time the six girls would be together as cheerleaders.”

Meanwhile, back in Sioux Falls, Brookings upset favored Sioux Falls Lincoln in the title game, 69-57. Brookings juniors Jim Kortan and Tom Osterberg were hailed as the game’s heroes, with Kortan scoring 11 points in the last eight minutes and Osterberg sinking 10 free throws without a miss. For a few hours it seemed that Kortan, Osterberg, and Senator Robert Kennedy were the big South Dakota newsmakers that weekend; Kennedy announced his presidential bid that Saturday, and pundits wondered how he might fare in the state’s Democratic primary 11 weeks down the road.

Sunday morning in Sioux Falls Ivan Landstrom filed his flight plan, gathered his eight passengers, and soared west. The weather in Rapid City was unseasonably warm, 68 degrees. Predicted rain showers never materialized. A steady wind of 20 miles an hour blew at the airport, with occasional stronger gusts. A little before 11 a.m., Landstrom made routine radio contact with the airport tower. He was cleared for landing and approached the runway at 11:12. Short of the runway, the plane was slammed by a crosswind gust. Its right wing shot upward and luggage in the cargo hold shifted. With its weight suddenly unbalanced the aircraft didn’t recover from the gust. The left wing hit the ground. The plane cartwheeled and two onlookers dashed to help but saw no movement through the craft’s windows. Less than 10 seconds after impact the plane burst into flames, and intense heat drove the would-be rescuers back. A grass fire ignited. Whipped by the wind, the fire burned a mile-long strip.

Rapid City businessman Ivan Landstrom volunteered to fly the varsity cheerleaders to Sioux Falls. They gathered for a photo before leaving Rapid City. The nine passengers were (from left) Shirley Landstrom, Kay McNutt, Terry Blanton, Jan Glaze, Mary Landstrom, Gail Flohr, Dorothy Lloyd (squad advisor), Diana McCluskey and Ivan Landstrom.


Within a minute of receiving calls, Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base firefighters were in motion. It took the Rapid City crew 14 minutes to arrive, and the Ellsworth crew 17 minutes.

Sketchy crash news spread quickly, mainly reported by Rapid City broadcasters. Many Black Hills basketball fans, driving home from the tournament, remembered hearing on their car radios that a plane was down, or being told by fellow travelers when they stopped for lunch or gas. Though no one knew who the victims were for a while, lots of people pieced together information and correctly surmised the plane had something to do with Rapid City High School and the tournament. A rumor circulated that members of the basketball team were aboard. Finally, in late afternoon, Pennington County Coroner George Behrens released the list of nine names.

The deaths of six of its young women left Rapid City reeling, and equally stunning was the loss of Ivan and Mary Landstrom, builders of one of South Dakota’s great business enterprises. Ivan, a native of Sweden, immigrated to Minnesota as a young boy. He met Mary there and the couple moved to Rapid City in 1943 to open Landstrom’s Jewelry and to manufacture Landstrom’s Black Hills Gold Jewelry. As an owner, additionally, of a Rapid City aviation service, Ivan had flown as a pilot for 22 years, logging more than 10,000 hours. He and Mary left behind two adult daughters.

If there’s a victim who’s been somewhat forgotten, it’s advisor Dorothy Lloyd. As Rapid Citians knew in 1968, Dorothy was a thoroughly professional and highly respected educator who had taught English at Rapid City High School for 21 years. Born Dorothy Goodhope in Viborg, she graduated from Yankton College and then continued her education at the University of California. She taught in that state and back in South Dakota at Parker, Piedmont and Spearfish before joining the Rapid City faculty. Friends remembered her as a dedicated bridge player. Dorothy had been widowed three years before the crash and was survived by an adult son and four grandsons.

As a 60-year-old cheerleading advisor, Dorothy was maybe a little old fashioned, recalled Dottie Crawford Olson, Cobbler cheerleader in 1967 with Jan Glaze and Shirley Landstrom. “I remember our skirts couldn’t be higher than an inch above our knees,” Dottie said. “But we got along well with her and she was always fair.” By 1968 Dottie was a freshman at South Dakota State, where she heard the news.

Well into Sunday night law enforcement officers asked young people to please keep moving as they caravanned, car after car, hoping to pay tribute at the accident site. The Rapid City Journal reported the only debris not charred black were pieces of fire-resistant pom-poms, Cobbler red and white.

It was the era before in-school grief counseling. Pam Schlimgen Roeber, a Rapid City junior then who knew the six girls, recalled coming to school after the crash and hearing barely a word spoken about it. A substitute teacher showed up in Dorothy Lloyd’s classroom, which had always been decorated with photos of cheerleading squads Dorothy advised over the years. Pam found it odd that all the photos had been immediately removed.

The Thursday after the crash, South Dakotans from all walks of life filed into the high school’s auditorium for a memorial service honoring all victims. In fact, there were two identical services so that all hoping to attend could do so. Included were delegations of students and teachers from several other schools. The nine who died had attended five different Rapid City churches, and pastors from each of those churches led a portion of the memorial service.

Earl Butz, First Methodist Church pastor, spoke directly to high school students present. He told them no one can lead another person’s life. But, he said, “Some of you will have the responsibility to fill the positions they have held, and undertake the tasks they were doing. Do it well. Bring fruition to the work they have begun.”

To memorialize the cheerleaders far beyond the 1960s, members of the state’s Sheriffs and Police Officers Association were soon discussing a cheerleading award (the organization today is the South Dakota Peace Officers Association). The award would honor one cheerleading squad who mirrored the Rapid City girls’ dedication and positive influence at future state basketball tournaments. The first Spirit of Six Award trophy was presented in 1970, but not on the tournament floor. A few years later the South Dakota High School Activities Association decided the award would be announced very publicly at state tournaments. Today the award remains a presentation of the South Dakota Peace Officers Association, and trophies go to cheerleaders at both boys’ and girls’ tournaments, classes AA, A and B.

Vyonne Glaze, Jan’s mother, said the award felt like a good way to honor the girls four decades ago, and that it continues to feel that way today.

Rapid City High School evolved into Central High School and moved to a new building. A stone memorial near the gym, created by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, pays tribute to the cheerleaders and their advisor, although that doesn’t mean all Central students understand what happened. “But I think most kids who are in activities know,” said Dottie Olson, the 1967 cheerleader captain who worked for several years as a secretary in the school. Central, she noted, won the Spirit of Six trophy in 2010 at both the boys’ and girls’ state tournament and that boosted awareness.

Every spring, all South Dakotans are reminded, however briefly, of the victims of that tragic crash 50 years ago. But their memories are never far away for those who knew and loved them.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the March/April 2012 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


02:18 pm - Tue, March 6 2018
linda kiehn said:
i feel like RCHS should never have been changed to Dakota middle school. its name should have always remained the same, as it was when the Spirit of 6 attended that school, in honor of those who died while being Cobblers. at the very least, they could have named the new high school RCHS, instead of central.
02:19 pm - Tue, March 6 2018
linda kiehn said:
i feel like RCHS should never have been changed to Dakota middle school. its name should have always remained the same, as it was when the Spirit of 6 attended that school, in honor of those who died while being Cobblers. at the very least, they could have named the new high school RCHS, instead of central.
06:00 pm - Tue, March 6 2018
Judith L. Wegner said:
I was on the first squad to receive this award. It was the Pierre squad. We were presented the award in private but we were so honored. It had such an impact on all of us.
06:47 pm - Tue, March 6 2018
anonymous said:
Thank you for bringing back the actual story! It’s so important that the true “spirit of 6” stay alive!
07:41 pm - Tue, March 6 2018
Dan McNutt said:
What a great article. I never knew my aunt Kay but my dad Don McNutt and my mom Pat McNutt and I talk about this day from time to time. This article sheds more light on the story for me. I hope it never goes away.
11:54 pm - Tue, March 6 2018
David Hajek said:
This story brings the enormity of the tradgedy home to me. I can't express the sorrow that I have for the families that were so devastated by the loss of these lives.
12:06 am - Wed, March 7 2018
Donna said:
I was born in 1968. During high school I was cheerleader for a lot of sports. My senior year, 1986, my squad and I won the spirit of six award at the girls state B at the corn palace. We were so very honored and thrilled to have been recognized as a squad of leadership as those 6 girls were. That year, the trophy was almost 3 feet tall. It was tough to get it in the trophy show case in our gym. Then in April (1986) our gym burned. As our brave men would go in and retrieve things, one of the first things brought out was our sprit of six award. It brought lots of tears of joy to many when we heard the words
“We saved it!” I loved cheerleading and I did go on to be a college cheerleader also.
Every year at tourney time I remember the girls and others that lost their lives but the “spirit” lives on and on....
07:52 pm - Wed, March 7 2018
Val Marsden Simpson said:
I was a member of the 1986 squad of cheer and yell leaders from RC Stevens to be honored with the Spirit of Six award at the AA tournament. This is the most complete accounting of their story I have ever seen-thank you so much for sharing it. What a humbling honor to represent the spirit of these lives.
06:47 am - Thu, March 8 2018
Barbara Schaller said:
Thank you to Paul Higbee and to South Dakota Magazine for this story. There are many details here that I did not know; I have never seen the group photo taken before the flight . The ripples the accident created affected so many families that day. Mary Landstrom was my sister, Ivan Landstrom was my brother-in-law, and Shirley Ann Landstrom was my niece. May God rest their weary souls.
06:12 pm - Thu, March 8 2018
Audra True Sayler said:
I was also a member of the 1986 cheer squad at Stevens High School AA basketball tournament that had the honor of receiving this award. It was very important to us in receiving this award due to the history and having Jan Glaze’s sister as one of our classmates, Amy Glaze. This is such a thorough story of this tragic event. Thank you for telling the story.
09:46 am - Wed, March 14 2018
Larry Madsen said:
Dorothy Lloyd was my father's cousin. I remember her and Doc(her husband) as great people.
09:49 am - Thu, March 15 2018
Stephen Naber said:
Thank you for this beautiful article. The Landstroms were our dear neighbors in Rapid City and I knew all of the Landstrom daughters well. I still recall the phone call from my parents informing me of this tragedy and, after fifty years, the sadness of that day hasn't diminished .
11:55 am - Fri, March 16 2018
Jeff Holweger said:
Sadness wells up in my eyes as I read this story. What a loss for the school, the families, and the world. Thanks for telling it well.
12:27 pm - Fri, March 16 2018
Tom McChurch said:
I was stationed at Ellsworth at the time of this accident. It still haunts me.
Just terrible
06:57 pm - Fri, March 16 2018
Joyce (Jackley) Baer said:
My father, Philip Jackley and Ivan were good friends. Ivan had flown up to Scobey MT the weekend before the tournament in Sioux Falls. Ivan had just boughten a new plane and he wanted to take Dad up so they could go on a flight together...Dad passed away in 1979 and he never got over Ivan and Mary's death.
09:11 am - Sat, March 17 2018
Norm Sedig said:
My Dad and I were coming back from the South Dakota State "A" Basketball Tournament and traveling I90 past Wall, South Dakota when the horrible news came over KOTA. Along with John F. Kennedy's Assassination, Elvis Presley's death, Robert Kennedy's Assassination, Martin Luther's Assassination, and Muhammed Ali's death, I will always remember that moment of hearing the sad news over KOTA of the 1968 plane crash at the Rapid City Municipal Airport. I agree with Linda Kiehn and her comment that the school's name should have remained RCHS.

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