Editor’s note: Beth Pugh Johnson is a Baton Rouge native. She now lives in Counce, Tenn. Fifty years ago she was involved in a terrible wreck that killed five LSU students and injured nine others.
I knew the anniversary of “the wreck” was coming up … Sept. 20, 1963. How could 50 years have passed?
I had kept a scrapbook — get-well cards, hospital photos, newspaper clippings, but I hadn’t looked at it since when … 50 years? The pages were stiff with age and glued photos slipped away from the yellowed pages, aged cards tumbled out and memories flooded back.
LSU was about to start its fall semester. Excitement was high as students were back on campus. I was starting my sophomore year and still living at home in Baton Rouge. I was looking forward to seeing old friends and going to classes. LSU football was about to start; the first game of the season was Saturday night. College life was such fun.
Before I left on my date that Friday night, something made me pull Mama aside to tell her I was going to a levee party.
She wasn’t happy about that, but she said she wouldn’t tell Daddy.
I had a date with Buddy Burge. It was only my second date with him. I’d dated one of his Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers for a while, so I knew him and many of the other KAs. Buddy was from Highland Park, Ill. He was cute and fun, and we were going to a KA fraternity levee party not far from campus.
That Friday afternoon the KAs had bought an old hearse for $50, had the top cut off to make it a convertible and were going to the party in style. Buddy and I were lucky enough to be included in that group of 10. The party was fun, with a big bonfire. Little did we know what that night had in store for all of us.
The River Road was dark and curvy. Four miles south of the campus, the old car stalled. Some of us piled out and were pushing it off the road. That was the last thing I remembered until I woke up in the emergency room of Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.
I looked up into my Daddy’s face and told him how sorry I was to have gone to the levee party. He was just glad I was alive.
The wreck was horrendous. There were no street lights on the deserted road, and the taillights of the old car were obscured because we were pushing it. Another car from the party came up behind us and slammed into the rear of the old car we were pushing. There was a huge explosion and fire. Five students died that night — Buddy Burge among them. Nine of us were hospitalized, some in critical condition.
I had third-degree burns on both legs and feet and a shattered left elbow. I remember pushing the car on right rear bumper, and the collision probably had thrown me to the side of the road, which surely saved my life.
I had wonderful doctors, round-the-clock nurses and many surgeries. Family and friends kept my spirits up during the two months I spent in the hospital. When I got home, I was in a wheelchair for a while and Daddy helped me learn to walk again by dancing with me every night, slow, very slow, dancing.
In December Buddy’s parents came down from Illinois to meet me and my family. They generously set up a scholarship fund in Buddy’s memory to pay for the rest of my college education. I started back to LSU that next semester and graduated in 1967 with a degree in business administration.
I moved to New Orleans, married in 1969 and moved to Memphis, Tenn. For many years I kept up with the Burges, but we eventually lost contact. Life went on.
Every year on Sept. 20, l think of the Burges who lost their oldest son that night and the kindness they extended to me and my family.
As the 50th anniversary of that tragic night approached, I wanted to reach out to that family I’d only met once. Through an Internet search I was able to track them down. Buddy’s brother Jack and family are in Kansas; his sister Carol and family are in Mexico. I have made contact with them and after 50 years that chapter is closed.
But closing one door often opens another, as it has with this story.
Reading the 50-year-old get well cards, notes and letters in my scrapbook brought back memories of many friends from that era. In the last few weeks I’ve located old friends I haven’t spoken to in all these years. Most still live in Louisiana. What a treat to hear their voices and to know all remember that tragic night and the sorrow and loss we all endured. I now at last have closure.
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