LANSING | The sight of a small airplane circling the sky above what was known as the Lansing Sportsmen's Club and flying east toward Indiana on July 26, 1966, puzzled Joanne Parkhill. She wondered why airplanes were allowed to fly so close to the ground without creating a hazard.
"I said … there ought to be a law about planes flying so low," Parkhill recalled saying at the time.
Parkhill soon realized an emergency was happening before her eyes. She and two friends were playing the sixth hole of the golf course when the airplane doubled back from Indiana airspace and crashed near the seventh hole.
Professional golfer Tony Lema and his wife, Betty, who were riding in the plane, and the two pilots were killed about 3 p.m. that day in the crash.
Parkhill was among about 40 people Sunday at the Lansing Country Club who witnessed the unveiling of signs acknowledging what happened at the seventh hole.
Participants also drank Champagne toasts Sunday to honor the golfer known as "Champagne Tony," while club manager Scott Stephanuik read letters of condolence from retired golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Lema was a professional golfer in the 1950s who won the 1964 British Open. He also was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup teams in 1963 and 1965.
Nicklaus and Palmer considered Lema a friend, and Palmer reportedly lent Lema a putter and a caddy when Lema won the British Open.
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Officials arranged for an airplane to circle the golf course, then fly down over the seventh hole, recreating the events of 45 years ago. Parkhill, who now lives in Calumet City, recalls the plane hitting the ground nose first, then tipping over. The final impact caused an explosion.
What sticks in Parkhill’s memory is that she saw no movement from anyone in the airplane, which makes her think the impact killed them instantly. She later shared that observation in a letter to Lema's mother-in-law.
Parkhill said she still remembers the response. The mother-in-law thanked her for the reassurance because she had feared Lema, her daughter, Betty, and the two pilots had burned to death.
"She said something like, 'You must be a mother because you understood what my fears were,'" Parkhill said of the letter. "I didn’t expect any kind of response, but I’m glad I reached out to her."
Officials believe the airplane -- a twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza -- ran out of gas at the time of the crash. The plane was trying to reach the Lansing Municipal Airport about a half-mile southwest of the golf course. From there, Lema intended to travel to Crete to play in the Lincolnshire Open tourney.
Robert Follmar owned the company that ultimately removed the wreckage from the golf course, and his son, Edward, was present for Sunday’s ceremony. Edward said his father used to say what made the accident particularly foul was that the bodies were still in the airplane.
"They were burnt so bad, he said he could never forget that," Edward said.