Remembering a tragedy 50 years later


PARIS, Ill. (WTHI) – March 12, 1964 – it was nearly 50 years ago but for those who lived in Paris, Illinois it seems like yesterday.

It was the day a tragic accident took the lives of the Paris High School principal and two cheerleaders.

“We we’re in Bridgeport for the sectional. We lost but played a good game. Everybody was in a good mood,” said Oliver Yates, a Color Commentator for the game.

It was a cold, dark night and a caravan of students were returning home from the basketball tournament.

“We were going north almost got to Marshall, and there were two cars ahead of us,” Yates said.

In one of those cars were Principal John Allen and five cheerleaders he was driving back to campus.

“They were a pretty vivacious bunch, lots of fun,” said Ann Johnson, who was a Cheerleader Sponsor that year.

They were close to home when the night of celebration turned tragic all too quickly.

“The two cars braked suddenly and pulled off the road, so we pulled off the road. We knew something wasn’t right,” Yates explained.

The car carrying the vivacious bunch of cheerleaders had been hit head on by a drunk driver.

Principal Allen and cheerleaders Paulette Brooks and Mary Margaret Lutz would die from their injuries.

“We started taking the people out of the car one by one and accessing real quickly that one girl was already dead,” Yates stated.

He was a hero of sorts as he began administering CPR on those who had survived but were unconscious.

“It’s like your not there,” Yates continued. “I mean you’re doing it but I mean you’re not there because you can’t face it it’s so awful.”

After a long night at the hospital he was dropped off at his car in the school parking lot. He described walking home because he was too shaken to drive.

“From the time that it happened until school was out you could walk the halls and almost hear a pen drop,” Johnson said.

Johnson would teach at the high school for another 30 years, but time did not erase the pain.

“Goodness you know it was devastating, just devastating,” Johnson explained.

The community of Paris High School was left trying to grasp that unexplainable night in which lives were taken too soon.

“This time of year is when you think of it,” Yates shared.

Now 50 years has passed and they hope those who are gone are not forgotten.

“Paris is a small town; it’s a tight-knit community. I think they will always be remembered. I really do,” Yates said.

The three other cheerleaders in the car that night, Michelle Starbuck, Cindy Soughers, and Sandy Smith did survive despite their injuries.

“Just remember that things like this happen, live everyday to the best you can,” said Johnson.

Many attribute their survival to the help of those like Oliver who administered CPR before the ambulance arrived.

Sandy Smith still lives in Paris today.

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