Try 1 month for 99¢

BLUE MOUND - The rented airplane took off from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at 3:19 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15, 1966.

Arrival time in Decatur was about 4:30 p.m.

It was stormy.

About 20 miles northwest of Galesburg, the airplane crashed in a farm field.

All six aboard were killed: The Rev. Harold E. Sheriff, pastor of the Blue Mound Methodist Church and the airplane pilot; his wife, Virginia, coach of the Blue Mound Gym Club; their daughter, Hali, 14-year-old Olympics "can't miss" prospect in gymnastics; Nancy Beckett of Blue Mound and her 7-year-old son, William; and Joanna Wulfsberg, age 4, of Cedar Rapids, Nancy Beckett's niece. The Sheriffs were in Cedar Rapids for a gymnastics exhibition and to inspect gymnastics equipment.

The Sheriff survivors included sons John, 15, and Paul, 10.

The tragedy is the centerpiece of a documentary film Paul Sheriff is making about his life. A graphic designer in Elkins Park, Pa., Paul Sheriff explains: "The subtext attempts to focus on the interplay between the past and the present. The film is also my attempt to acknowledge, retrieve and reassess emotions which were buried under mud and ash on a rainy day so many years ago. In that, I am not a film maker and that I have very limited funds."

Paul Sheriff went to San Diego, Calif., with the hope of interviewing George Nissen, who produced a line of gymnastics equipment into the mid-1980s. The Sheriffs had visited Nissen's display studio/gym on the trip to Cedar Rapids. Nissen is 95 years old and was not available to see Paul Sheriff.

Film footage of Hali Sheriff has been placed on YouTube by Paul Sheriff,


"Hali was 11 or 12 years old at the time," Paul Sheriff said. "I know other films exist and I am making connections in both the United States and England to find more. I also will be going to Blue Mound and filming what I can, maybe this summer."

There's no doubt that Hali Sheriff was headed for the 1968 Olympics. Starting as a 6-year-old first-grader in Champaign, Hali practiced relentlessly and excelled in free exercise, balance beam, sidehorse vault and tumbling. She also competed in the parallel bars and the all-around. Nobody remembered her losing.

Hali turned to gymnastics after her brother, John became disinterested. Hali's mother had become fascinated with gymnastics when she learned that the training might improve John's asthmatic condition.

Hali's mother organized the Blue Mound Gym Club around Hali and coached the members on a victory trail across the U.S.- Louisville, Ky.; Indianapolis; Chicago; Sarasota, Fla.; Baton Rouge, La.; Amarillo, Texas; Mexico City. The group included Toby Towson, Marnie Bankson, Judy Reed, Becky Brown ,Lynnette Damery and Alice Bean. Blue Mound became the smallest community represented by a major gymnastics team. Towson went on to win three National Amateur Athletic Union floor exercise championships, three Big Ten championships and two National Collegiate Athletic Association championships.

Just before the plane crash, Hali and her mother returned from a three-week tour in England. The exhibitions Hali gave were termed "fantastic" in the newspapers. Muriel Grossfeld, one of the world's best competitive gymnasts and a noted coach, said this about Hali: "I think of all the young girl gymnasts in the world, Hali is the most promising "

Hali's death was a waste of remarkable talent.

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments