Local doctor never the same after crash

November 16, 2018

ASHLAND — It was Nov. 14, 1970, and for Dr. Paul Lett a day off from his stressful job as director of the emergency room at Cabell Huntington Hospital. A carefree Saturday afternoon that the doctor used to paint a room in his house in Huntington’s Greenbrier Heights neighborhood, wound up being a day he would never forget.

Lett had only been in Huntington for one year after being a family physician and surgeon in Lancaster, Kentucky.

“I think he painted our dining room or something,” said Lett’s widow, Glenna Lett. “I wanted it a different color, and he sat down on the bottom rung of the ladder and lit a cigarette. The telephone rang and I answered the phone and it was Cabell Huntington. The nurse had called, you know, ‘Can I speak to Dr. Lett?’ He hung up the phone and he started crying. They said it was a plane crash, but he didn’t know it was the Marshall plane.

“Then he got dressed in about two minutes and rushed to the hospital, and he hadn’t been gone long until he called me back and that’s when he started crying when I answered the phone. I thought he had a wreck or something on the way to the hospital, and I said, ‘What is the matter?’ He said, ‘It was the Marshall plane.’ He said everybody in that emergency room was crying and he couldn’t talk to me. I’ll never forget that day.”

Lett said her husband was never the same after the crash. There was nothing he could do to help. All 75 passengers on Southern Airways Flight 932 perished when the plane crashed at 7:36 p.m. near Tri-State Airport on its return flight from a Marshall University football game at East Carolina University. It was the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S. history.

“He was the Cabell County coroner, but the plane crash was in Wayne County so he didn’t have to sign the death certificates,” Lett said.

“He lost several friends on that plane crash. It really upset Paul, it seemed like it always bothered him. Dr. (Herbert D.) Proctor and his wife (Courtney) were both killed on the plane, and they left five little children, and they were about the age of our four children. So that’s one thing that really bothered Paul, that the children’s parents were taken.”

Mrs. Lett grew up in Ashland and Dr. Lett was from Russell, two towns on U.S. 23 separated by just by one mile. But the two didn’t meet until Dr. Lett returned from World War II, where he served in the Navy.

Lett will be 95 in January. Dr. Lett died in 1988. Lett said when her children were young, they would get mad at their dad when he said he married an older woman. Lett said her children would say, “Dad, Mom is just three three weeks older than you.”

Two years after graduating from Marshall, Matewan, West Virginia, native Gaynell (Epling) Varney might have seemed the most unlikely person to escape death on Flight 932. “They couldn’t find someone to sponsor (the cheerleaders), at that time I was a graduate, like a first year teacher,” Varney said. “They came to me and asked me would I help sponsor them so that they could go to the games. I said I don’t know much about cheerleading but I’ll go with you, so that you can go.”

Varney earned her B.A. from Marshall in 1968. She was on Marshall’s women’s basketball team when it was still only a club team that played other colleges. In 1970, Varney was also a coach for Marshall’s softball team.

“The athletic director was Charles Kautz, and he informed me that the cheerleaders would not go on the plane because they were going to take the fans, important fans and boosters,” Varney said. “There were four seats available. The cheerleaders decided that if they all couldn’t go, that none of them would go.

“Mostly we took cars and drove. The football team usually drove also, but for some reason they got a plane this time.”

Varney said that two of her cheerleaders had parents that died in the crash, Marshall team physician Dr. Joseph Chambers and his wife Margaret. They were the parents of cheerleaders Debby and Cindy Chambers.

Kautz was also a casualty. Varney pointed out that Kautz’s daughter Lucianne had also been a Marshall cheerleader,

“Lucianne, she had two other sisters that of course lost their father.” Varney said. Lucianne now lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Varney said she feels fortunate and blessed to have not been able to be on the plane. “It’s very sad what everybody had to go through,” she said. “I thank God everyday about my blessings to be here.”

Varney is retired and divides her time between Nashville (Tennessee), Tampa (Florida) and Matewan. She still sometimes attends Marshall games.

Ironically, Varney’s brother Gerald Epling, lives just one block from Lett. Like Lett’s husband, who later practiced medicine at King’s Daughter’s Medical Center in Ashland, Epling’s son and daughter-in-law Chris and Kim Epling, also are physicians at KDMC. They are also graduates of the former Matewan High School.

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