Growing up in the shadow of family tragedy is like growing up with ghosts. The lost loved ones are dear to us, but they are off-limits.
“If you ever want to see Poppy cry, ask him about Betsy,” my father once said of his father. I regretted breaking the unspoken rule of not asking about his late mother.
Betsy Bevington, my paternal grandmother, and her mother, Dell White Rickey, were killed in an airplane explosion on June 3, 1962 at Orly Air Field in Paris. They’d just wrapped up an Atlanta Art Association tour of European art. More than 100 philanthropists and civic leaders were flying home to build a world-class arts center for Atlanta. Of the 132 onboard, only two flight attendants survived.
My grandfather, Milton Bevington Sr., witnessed the crash from the airport terminal where he’d just kissed his wife and mother-in-law goodbye. Betsy was uneasy about flying together with three young sons at home. Poppy was to take the next flight back to Atlanta.
In Georgia, my father, Mit, was a week shy of his 10th birthday. His brothers, Rickey and Peter, were not far behind him in age. Poppy’s brother, a Catholic priest, joined a family friend in whisking the boys off to a north Georgia lake house. Soon, reporters were circling in boats trying to photograph three little boys kneeling for Mass on the porch. They were among the 33 children who lost parents that day.
The Orly Air Crash was the largest commercial aviation disaster up until that time. President John F. Kennedy sent a telegram of condolence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte canceled a downtown Atlanta sit-in. Andy Warhol created pop art out of a photograph of the crash on the cover of the New York Mirror.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the crash, the Woodruff Arts Center represents the vision of those killed at Orly. The Atlanta Symphony and Alliance Theatre perform in the Memorial Arts Building built in their honor. The lawn of the High Museum of Art features a priceless bronze cast of Auguste Rodin’s “The Shade,” a memorial gift from the French government to the City of Atlanta.
The Orly Air Crash is a symbol of both unspeakable pain and Atlanta’s drive toward progress. 106 citizens inspired Atlanta to leverage the arts to turn their southern town into a world-class city. If beauty can come from tragedy, I hope the Atlanta of today reflects the optimistic future they envisioned.