BLUE MOUND — It's not an exaggeration to say the world changed when a small plane crashed near Galesburg in 1966.
A film that's approaching its finishing point details that story, a story in which Blue Mound and a deceased longtime Herald & Review writer play key roles.
Paul Sheriff is completing the documentary “My Sister Hali.” The film tells the tale of the Blue Mound-based Hali Sheriff, whose improbable skill as a world-class gymnast is overwhelmed by the tragedy of her premature death in that fatal plane crash.
A key part of the film is a reunion of the Hali Sheriff team, 46 years later. Playing another important role is Herald & Review employee Bob Fallstrom. During Sheriff's time, Fallstrom was the sports editor at the Herald & Review and covered Hali Sheriff.
“Bob actually ends the movie,” Paul Sheriff said, “but he's in it throughout. So is the Decatur Herald. I interviewed all of the team members, but it was primarily Bob.
“When I went to see him, even though it had been 45 years, I recognized him immediately.”
Hali Sheriff established herself as a young gymnastics prodigy in the early 1960s, when she was a pre-teen.
“When my sister was 9,” Paul Sheriff said, “she was in a position to compete at an Olympic level. But in 1964, she was too young to go.”
The 1968 Olympics was a goal. But Hali Sheriff, her father Hal and her mother and coach Virginia were among six people killed on June 15, 1966. A small airplane piloted by Hal crashed near Galesburg during a return trip from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Paul Sheriff was 10 years old at the time Hali and his parents died.
“I refused to talk about it my entire life,” Paul Sheriff said. “I talk about it in the movie. I had such an extreme sense of loss. I didn't want people to have pity on me. I didn't want them to treat me like the orphan I was.
“All I knew at the time was she was the best gymnast in the world. That colors the way you look at life. Even if I got the lead in a play and I was great, that was still mediocre compared with my sister.
“I still remember all the other gymnasts never considered finishing first. They knew they were going to compete for second, because Hali was going to win.
“She was a genius. A beautiful, phenomenal, happy genius.”
A part of the film concerns Paul Sheriff finally attempting to face his loss. He sees its target audience as “film festivals. I think it would be a natural on public TV. And it would be good for athletic programs.”
A section turns on an article Fallstrom wrote well after Hali's death.
The film contains images, Paul Sheriff said, “of all the many articles he wrote. Between my mom and Bob, I had information on all of these meets. My mom kept a scrapbook. That's the backbone of the story. I hated the way my mom would photograph us when we were kids. Now I'm so glad to have those photos.
“Bob mentioned Hali in an article he'd written in 1984 about Mary Lou Retton.”
Retton became a national figure in 1984 as the first American to win the all-around Olympic gold medal in women's gymnastics. In his 1984 piece, Fallstrom recalled Hali Sheriff and asserted the arrival of the United States on the international gymnastics scene would have come sooner had she lived.
“That article was 20 years after Hali died,” Paul Sheriff said. “He was on it. He wanted people to know.”
As the film approaches completion, Sheriff is making a final plea for funds.
“Bob found out I was working on the film,” Sheriff said, “and called and said 'Can I help?' When we got in a better position to do something, he was able to help.
“Giving to the fund can honor Bob.”
Donations to the fund may be made through www.mysisterhali.com, a site that includes more information about the film, as well as a five-minute interview with Fallstrom.