KREMLIN — Harry Birdwell drove over from Stillwater 10 years ago and told Harold Holden what Oklahoma State University wanted. A life-sized tribute to the 10 men who died in the 2001 OSU basketball plane crash.
Holden, a renowned Oklahoma sculptor, pulled out a piece of paper and, Birdwell says, within a minute or two sketched out what you see today in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
A kneeling bronze cowboy, hat in hand and laid on the ground.
The monument still pulls people to the corner of Gallagher-Iba's south lobby.
Legendary coach Eddie Sutton stops by and gazes at the memorial when he comes to a Cowboy game. So does Birdwell, the school's athletic director back in 2001. And family members of the victims. And OSU fans. Even visitors routinely stop by the “We Will Remember” exhibit in the otherwise rowdy coliseum.
Birdwell still marvels at how quickly Holden free-handed that broken-hearted cowboy. Says that a little bit of the cowboy's head was changed from the original drawing, but otherwise, what Birdwell saw on paper moments into that first meeting is what we now revere as a symbol of a school's and a state's mourning.
Holden, a renowned Oklahoma sculptor who smiles easily and talks sparingly, says it actually took him a little bit longer than that. But not much. Holden immediately felt what Birdwell felt. What everyone associated with OSU felt.
Thursday is the 10-year anniversary of the crash, and today's Oklahoman sports section commemorates the occasion with a remembrance of the 10 men.
Not collectively. Individually.
For most of us, the plane crash was a tragedy that took 10 lives. Killed 10 men. Some Oklahomans knew them all. Some of us knew some. Some knew none.
For most of us, the plane crash was a singular tragedy. But in truth, the plane crash was 10 tragedies.
Those close to Kendall Durfey, Bjorn Fahlstrom, Nate Fleming, Will Hancock, Daniel Lawson, Brian Luinstra, Denver Mills, Pat Noyes, Bill Teegins and Jared Weiberg were crushed most by the loss of one. Their one.
The death of a loved one, be it alone or along with thousands, is no more or less sorrowful.
Which brings us back to Harold Holden and why his statue resonates with so many. The grieving cowboy was born from personal anguish.
Holden has produced almost two dozen sculptures, some of which you would readily recognize. Will Rogers at the airport. Oklahoma heritage statues in Enid and Altus. The quarterhorse at State Fair Park. Mascots at Central Oklahoma, Northwestern State and Oklahoma Baptist universities.
But Holden said his kneeling cowboy remains the piece that means the most to him. And here's the story why.
When Birdwell asked Holden to make a monument, Holden thought about the grieving families.
He didn't have to wonder how they felt.
A few months earlier, Holden's five-day-old grandson, Patrick Martin Meyer, died at Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City.
Doctors had detected a heart defect during Shannon Meyer's pregnancy. They didn't think the baby would live. But Patrick was born big, more than seven pounds.
“He looked healthy,” Holden said.
Five days into his life, Patrick Meyer died. Shannon Meyer called her father with the news. And there, in his ranch house five miles north of Enid, Harold Holden dropped to his knees in agony.
Holden thought of that day when Harry Birdwell told him what OSU wanted.
“That's probably the way they feel,” Holden said.
And so he sketched the cowboy that reminds us all of a terrible loss.
“He's in sorrow,” Holden said quietly. “That's what I felt like when I was on my knees. I kind of felt how those people felt.”
Like many an artist, Holden is never completely pleased with his work. He finds things he wishes he had done differently.
But he feels good about his creation that sits in Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“People connected with the families, it really hit ‘em hard,” Holden said. “They've thanked me for it.”
That kneeling cowboy warms their hearts. Warms its creator's heart, too.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.