BENNINGTON -- On Monday, Sept. 20, 1965, at 8:40 a.m., four local educators left Bennington for a meeting of the Vermont Headmasters’ Association in Montpelier.
Rev. Vincent J. Spinelli, 39, was the principal of the Bennington Catholic High School, which would close its doors for good in 1967, after a state Supreme Court decree in 1963 declared that no state money could go to denominational schools, leading to the school requiring parents to pay tuition for the first time and eventually closing. Spinelli had played football for the University of Miami, where he was an all-star tackle his senior year, before becoming a member of the Order of the Holy Cross. He was ordained in 1956, and became the second principal of the Bennington Catholic High School that very same year, after serving as assistant principal. His students described him as very tough, but very fair.
Ralf S. Kates, 31, who had been named principal of Bennington High School in April 1964, was had recently left that position to become the principal of the new Mount Anthony Union High School, the groundbreaking for which was scheduled for that November. Kates had served in the Navy from 1954-58, when he left the service with the rank of lieutenant to become a junior high school science teacher in Ellenville, N.Y., where he stayed from 1958-1962.
W. Phillip Walker, 46, was principal of Molly Stark Elementary School, but was about to be named junior high principal at Mount Anthony Union.
James H. Morgan, 27, was director of the Ford Foundation, a local curriculum improvement project that was funded by several local educators. Morgan’s wife was pregnant with their first child.
George A. Sleeman, who had been named acting principal of Bennington High School in Kates’ stead, and Catherine Corcoran, principal of the North Bennington School, were scheduled to travel to the meeting as well. Originally, Kates, Spinelli, Walker, and Sleeman were going to fly to the meeting, in a single-engine, four-passenger plane rented by Kates. Kates held an active private pilot’s license, and had previously taught an adult education "ground school" class for aviators in Ellenville, N.Y.
"Ralf Kates would rather fly than eat," said Sleeman, who spoke to a Banner reporter this week. "People thought, because he was in the Navy, that he was a Navy pilot, but he wasn’t. He just got hooked on flying, and would fly at any opportunity." However, when Kates and his son came to visit Sleeman at dinnertime on Sept. 19, the day before the meeting, Sleeman volunteered to drive up to the meeting, in his mother’s brand new car, pick up Corcoran along the way, then pick up the others at the airport. "Great!" said Kates, "That means Jim Morgan can come!" Kates used Sleeman’s phone to call Morgan, who agreed to take Sleeman’s spot on the plane. "If there was one person who had no business being on that plane, it was Jim Morgan," said Sleeman, noting that he had not been required to attend the meeting. "He was new, and Kates wanted him to meet some of the other administrators up there."
When Kates, Spinelli, Walker, and Morgan arrived at the airport, they received word that the weather between Bennington and Montpelier was not safe for flying. Taking the side of caution, the four men decided to drive to the conference after all. However, when they heard on the radio that the weather was starting to clear up, they turned around and drove back to the airport. Kates rented the plane, the same as he did most Sundays, but neglected to submit a flight plan, which at the time was not required, though it was highly recommended.
When Sleeman went to the airport in Montpelier to pick up his colleagues, he was told that the plane has not arrived. "My first thought was that those guys stuck me and Catherine at the meeting alone!" It was only when they returned to Bennington that Sleeman realized that something was wrong. He called Kates’ wife, to ask why they hadn’t gone to the meeting. She thought they had gone, but had heard about the bad weather, and thought perhaps they had decided not to go, and were getting dinner somewhere instead. Sleeman began to worry, as they certainly should have made it home before him, who was driving all the way from Montpelier. He contacted the airport manager, who confirmed that Kates had indeed rented a plane that morning. A search crew was organized; however, because Kates had not filed a flight plan, they were unable to start the search right away. Search crews, having no idea where to look, were stymied until Eve Carelli, a local restaurant operator, reporting seeing the plane flying "at treetop level" between 9 and 9:30 a.m. on Monday, just west of Pico Mountain Ski Area in Mendon.
The search party found the plane just after noon on Tuesday, Sept. 21. The plane had not managed to get over Killington Peak. The weather had been as bad as they had feared that morning, and Kates, suffering from vertigo, had pointed the nose of the plane downward, instead of upward, to climb over the mountain. The plane was racing toward the ground at a 40-degree angle when it hit a tree 70 feet in the air at full speed. Two of the men were thrown from the plane, but all four died instantly. A period Bennington Banner article reported that one of the bodies had struck another tree so hard, it had cracked the other side of the trunk.
The plane was equipped with instruments that may have helped Kates fly through the bad weather, but Kates hadn’t been approved for instrument flying yet, said Sleeman. Tyler Resch, who had been editor of the Bennington Banner from 1963-65 before joining the Springfield Times Reporter not long before the crash, and is currently a historian with the Bennington Museum, was at the scene. "Kates wasn’t a very experienced pilot, and the weather was chancy that day. It was too much for him."
The disaster, coupled with the June retirement of Superintendent Allan J. Heath, left the union school board lacking veteran leadership. Sleeman, who was already acting principal at Bennington High School -- and would be the last, as "Benhi" closed with the opening of Mount Anthony Union in 1967 -- became acting superintendent of Bennington schools, as well as the director of guidance, leading to the running joke in the school system, "Let George do it." Howard F. Kelly was eventually chosen to take over the position of superintendent full time, with Sleeman serving as assistant superintendent.
Spinelli, who was known for his love of Italian stogies -- a type of cheap cigar -- was a large, imposing figure. "Not big in the belly, just a wide, strapping, man," said Sleeman of his former colleague. Students would often say they could tell when he was coming toward them from the smell of his cigar, which he never smoked in the school hallways, but often chewed on. Tony Demasi, who was a coach for the Bennington Catholic High School football team from 1960-61, worked with Fr. Spinelli, who was a line coach.
After spending the next few years in the armed service, Demasi returned to Bennington in 1965. Fr. Spinelli showed up at his door. "He was a big man, he filled the whole door frame," said Demasi -- with two new members of the BCHS football coaching staff. After introductions, Spinelli told Demasi, in no uncertain terms, "You will coach." Demasi accepted for two reasons; first, that he respected Spinelli, and second, if Spinelli wanted him there, he would be there. "He helped me become a better line coach -- what I learned from him [in 1960 and 1961] was instrumental when I returned in ‘65," said Demasi. While Demasi himself was a graduate of Bennington High School, he had several friends who graduated from BCHS, all of whom described Spinelli as "a very kind person, very good as a principal, but if you misbehaved he could be very tough."
Before the crash, Spinelli had attempted to assuage Sleeman’s fears about flying. "You bless yourself, you get in the plane, we tell a few jokes, and we’re there," he had said to him. "Besides, if the plane starts to go down, I’ll just pray and keep us in the air."
"Let me tell you one thing about Father Spinelli," said Sleeman. "If Father Spinelli hadn’t been killed in that plane crash, Bennington Catholic High would still be going today. His death was the beginning of the end. That man was a top-notch administrator -- he could get on the telephone and raise as much money from non-Catholics as Catholics."
Corcoran went on to become the first female Superintendent of Schools for Bennington from 1968-72, before she was succeeded by Sleeman, who served for 13 years.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB.