A local history mystery solved by Vincent Bonacci and Genie Contrata: A phone call to the Information Desk from Marshall University started an investigation to uncover the local connections for Patrick Norrell. Pat was a member of the Marshall football team that perished on November 14, 1970 in the worst single air tragedy in NCAA history.
The quest started on Thursday, October 10th. I was assigned to the Information Desk when Steve Cotton, Director of Broadcasting for Marshall University Athletics, called the Library. He introduced himself and asked if I was familiar with the movie We Are Marshall. I’m ashamed to admit that the name sounded familiar, but I hadn’t viewed the film or even knew that it was based on a true story.
Steve quickly caught me up on the story and asked if the Library had any information about Pat Norrell, a student and passenger on the fatal 1970 plane crash. I was stunned to hear from Steve that Pat was from Hartsdale. After working in Greenburgh for 27 years I should have heard of Pat Norrell, at the least.
Steve Cotton explained that the University’s student records from 1970 were incomplete (and not computerized); therefore Marshall knew only that Pat was from Hartsdale. Marshall’s student government was planning a new memorial to the crash victims and wanted to know a little more about Pat, such as the name of his high school.
Locals know Hartsdale is officially named as a train stop and post office, not a town or village or school district. For someone from West Virginia, Hartsdale was somewhat of a mystery.
I started searching for Pat Norrell’s high school alma mater in the Library’s local history clippings and photograph collection. I came away from that search empty handed and disappointed. But along came Vincent Bonacci, Library Assistant, a Hartsdale native with a large family and an extensive network of local connections, plus he is a big sports fan. I thought to myself, surely, Vincent will know where Pat Norrell went to high school.
Growing up, I enjoyed watching football on TV, whether it be a college game on Saturday or the Giants and Jets on Sunday (they were terrible even when I was growing up, eh come to think of it some things never change!!!) I used to toss and play a game of football with friends and family in the fall whenever I got the chance to.
After losing a close game to the East Carolina Pirates, on Saturday November 14, 1970, a plane carrying members of the Marshall University Football team and prominent members of the Huntington, West Virginia community, crashed. The plane struck trees less than a mile from the airport, and none of the 75 people on board survived the crash.
The tragic event and aftermath was made into a 2006 movie, We are Marshall. If you have not watched this movie I encourage you to do so. It’s an inspirational story of the pain endured by those members of the football team and the coaching staff left to pick up the pieces of a devastated football program, and how the entire university community moved on from this enormous tragedy.
For me the most memorable scene in the movie We Are Marshall was when Head Football Coach Jack Lengyel (played by Matthew McConaughey) brought the team to the memorial site; the final resting place for 6 unidentified members of the football team and gave an emotional pep talk to the team before the first home game of 1971 season (which they won).
Who knew that a movie based on a true story that I had seen several times would have local implications in October 2019. Several weeks ago, while changing shifts, at the Adult Information Desk at the Greenburgh Public Library, Genie Contrata, asked me if I knew of a football player from Hartsdale who had died in a plane crash while playing for Marshall University in 1970. She recounted her conversation with Steve Cotton about the new memorial, the crash, and Pat Norrell from Hartsdale. I was shocked (to say the least) that I had not heard of Pat Norrell nor his connection to our area. I told Genie I would ask my older siblings if they knew of him and look into it further. Eventually I hit a dead end; no one I knew had heard of him. What was I going to do?
After a couple of days, I told Genie that no one I knew had ever heard of Pat Norrell. Meanwhile, Genie had been quite successful in her research and had found some answers; Pat Norrell graduated from Ardsley high-school in 1966. She had found an article published in the local paper, The Reporter Dispatch, from November 1970. The Reporter Dispatch article included a grainy picture of Pat Norrell in his Ardsley football uniform, quotes from his high school football coach, and the names of his parents. A bare bones type of article.
I congratulated Genie on a job well done finding this information. But we wanted to find more information about Pat.
Vincent remembered the movie very well, having watched it multiple times, but was unaware of Pat Norrell and his local connections. Vincent was in elementary school back in 1970, but he knows so many people, one phone call and he will have the information, I thought. I should be able to give Steve Cotton the answer by tomorrow and take this off my to do list.
While I was waiting for Vincent I thought about tracking down the obituary. The Reporter Dispatch for 1970 is on microfilm and owned by the White Plains Public Library. I contacted Austin Duffy, the local history librarian about getting printed copies of any articles about the crash and Pat Norrell. Austin sent me a few blurry articles and the answer. Pat Norrell graduated from Ardsley High School in 1966. I called Steve with the answer, but my curiosity about Pat Norrell was piqued, and I wanted to know more. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s a very good trait for a librarian. Again I turned to Vincent for help.
Genie and I were not satisfied with the simple answer that Pat graduated from Ardsley High School. We wanted to know about his family, his parents, did he have any siblings and did anyone from this area remember Pat?
If my personal connections couldn’t turn up anything I was positive social media, specifically Facebook, would have answers. I decided to put a post on a group I belong to “People From Hartsdale”. As a local history buff, I am a member of several of these groups that connect people from a general area. Joining these groups has enhanced my appreciation and knowledge of the past. As an added bonus I have found assistance on several questions over the past few years that have stumped me. Social media has gotten a lot of negative publicity over the past few years, but not enough good publicity for connecting people who have lost connections over the years.
To use a famous football metaphor if this was a football game I was attempting a “Hail Mary” (A “Hail Mary” in football is a desperation play at the end of a game when one team is down to one play and needs a touchdown to tie or win the game.) The quarterback attempts to throw a football into the end zone to a grouping of receivers covered by multiple defenders hoping for one of three things to happen: a receiver to catch the football for a touchdown, tip a ball to another receiver in the end zone or a defensive penalty. It does not work too often but when it does... it’s a spectacular...
…Touchdown!!! On October 16, 2019 I posted to the "People From Hartsdale" page asking if anyone remembered Pat Norrell. Responses started coming in as more and more people shared my request (to my surprise and delight) with other local groups. The "Ardsley High School Baby Boomers Nostalgia" group was particularly helpful.
The Ardsley alumni described Pat as a well rounded, active member of the community where he went to school. Even forty nine years after his death, people were fondly remembering Pat and his family so well. We also found out that he had a younger brother and with the information provided on Facebook, Genie was able to contact the Norrell family and let them know that they are still remembered warmly in the area. Pat’s parents, Marion and Richard Norrell moved out of the area in 1977. His brother, Daniel, followed in his brother’s footsteps and enrolled at Marshall University, and played on the “Young” Thundering Herds football team in 1971. When playing for Marshall, Daniel wore #63, the number his brother wore at Ardsley High School in a heartwarming tribute to his brother’s legacy. (When I learned of this fact, I was quite puzzled that it was not depicted in the film “We Are Marshall”.)
Facebook came through, one post from Vincent and the memories of Pat and the entire Norrell family came flowing in. Pat was well liked and respected for his athletic skill and his character. Warren Howard’s comment on Facebook stands out, I remember . . . Coach Hank Miller who put me up against Pat during practice . . . . Pat took it easy on me and after practice checked to see if I was ok. Robert Carucci remembers how Pat’s father used to attend practice everyday and was very tough on Pat. However, he came to find out that Mr. Norrell was a very nice man who because of his NFL affiliation it made sense how he treated Pat.
Pat worked as a lifeguard at the Ardsley Swim Club in the summer of 1970. And before that he was a counselor for the Ardsley Recreation Day Camp.
Armed with the name of Pat’s younger brother, Daniel, and using some Library research tools I found Daniel Norrell and reached out to him. Dan Norrell graciously agreed to speak with me via telephone. I offered him my condolences on the death of his brother and apologized for bringing up painful memories. Dan put my mind at ease, saying that he had dealt with this sadness many years ago, and as we talked seemed he appreciative of the chance to talk about his brother. Pat and Dan’s parents have both passed and there is only one relative left who remembers Pat and can reminisce about him with Dan.
I spent a wonderful 45 minutes recounting the trail that led me to Dan. It was especially rewarding to pass on the comments from Facebook. Dan remembers these friends from his high school days. Dan is not an aficionado of Facebook but was planning to reach out via private message right away.
Dan told me that Pat worked hard as a student, but struggled with certain subjects, such as English and writing. But Pat’s determination and discipline to excel at football carried over to his academics. While at college Pat would send drafts of his writing assignments home to his mother, Marion, who became his editor. Football was Pat’s true passion, he enjoyed the physicality of it and the challenge of taking on bigger players, testing them with his combination of strength, cunning and speed.
The new memorial to the crash victims is a 55-inch interactive touch screen display to be installed in the refurbished student center. The screen will start with the 1970 team picture. Viewers can then touch the individual player’s/coach’s face in the photo to bring up that person’s individual information. This memorial was conceived by the current student government as a way to remember those lost.
Upon reflection, the story of Pat Norrell was one of the most challenging of my career. On the one hand, his story is one of many lives tragically cut way too short, along with many others, 50 Novembers ago in the hills of Huntington, WV. On the other hand, what Genie and I found working in tandem was nothing short of a miracle. Sure Pat, along with his teammates, lost their lives all those Novembers ago, but he is warmly remembered this November by people from our community. Even more satisfying to us is the fact that through our research we brought his brother, Dan, and his family some memories to smile about this November and we could not be more satisfied knowing we had played a small role in bringing together the past and present.