Young Love Cut Short by America's Fiercest Hurricane

Bascom Grooms and his sister, Rosalind
(NOTE: This story was first posted on Drye Goods for the Labor Day weekend of 2007)

On this date 77 years ago, Rosalind Grooms Palmer sat down at her typewriter in Key West, Florida and banged out a teasing, affectionate note to her 12-year-old kid brother, Bascom Grooms, who was visiting friends up the islands in the village of Tavernier.

She apologized for the brevity of the note and, perhaps to ease the guilt she felt at not writing more, enclosed 50 cents so Bascom could buy an ice cream sundae for himself and a young friend named Elizabeth. She told her brother that she’d like to be with him on Key Largo “enjoying the ‘squitoes and other varmints such as sand fleas,” but added that she wouldn’t be taking any trips for a while.

That wasn’t entirely true, but her travel plans weren’t exactly the kind she wanted to reveal to her little brother or to the family he was visiting. She would be joining her boyfriend, 19-year-old George Pepper, at the Matecumbe Hotel in Islamorada for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

That note from Rosalind was the last communication Bascom would ever have from his sister. Five days later, she and George were killed when the most powerful hurricane in U.S. history came ashore in the Upper Keys.

Rosalind's note to her brother a few days before her death

I interviewed Bascom at his home in Key West in December 2002, when he allowed me to copy photos of him, his sister and George Pepper. The old sepia-toned photos tell a tragic story of young love that was cut short by the fiercest hurricane to ever make landfall in the U.S.

Rosalind was only 21 in August 1935, but she had already been through a brief, unhappy marriage to George Palmer, a U.S. Navy officer she’d met when Palmer’s ship docked in Key West. Rosalind – young, impulsive, fun-loving and beautiful – had fallen for the Navy officer, and they were married in Key West in 1933. They moved to San Diego, where Palmer’s ship, the destroyer USS Perry, was based.

But less than two years later, Rosalind suddenly appeared in Key West and said her marriage was over. Bascom recalled that she didn’t say much about her reasons for leaving her husband and filing for divorce.

Rosalind got her old job back as a court clerk. She was considered one of Key West’s most beautiful young women, and as soon as word got out that she was no longer married, lots of eager young men sought her attention.

Rosalind didn’t take her looks too seriously, however. She thought her legs were too skinny for her to be really attractive. She loved to dress well, and white high-heel pumps became a trademark of her wardrobe.

In early 1935, she met George Pepper, and soon she was again in love. Her new boyfriend was the nephew of Claude Pepper, who was just beginning his legendary career in Florida politics.

George had gotten a job as a mess hall steward at one of the work camps that housed World War I veterans working on a New Deal construction project in the Keys. The vets were building a highway from Miami to Key West.

Rosalind and George were gaa-gaa over each other. In July 1935 they went to a photographer’s studio in Miami and posed with various props for charmingly cheesy photos.

Rosalind Grooms Palmer and George Pepper, 1935
A day or so after Rosalind wrote the note to her brother she went up to Islamorada to meet George. They shot more pictures of each other on a pier, Rosalind in a knit dress and her ubiquitous white high-heel pumps, George in a white shirt and tie and summer slacks.

Rosalind Grooms Palmer and her white
high-heel pumps
But while George and Rosalind were enjoying each other's company on that long-ago Labor Day weekend of 1935, a tropical storm crossed the Bahamas into the Florida Straits. As it crawled slowly across the bathtub-warm water of the Straits, it began rapidly intensifying. By September 2 – Labor Day Monday – it had mushroomed into a seagoing monster with sustained winds of about 185 mph and gusts that may have exceeded 200 mph. By late Monday afternoon, the worst of the storm’s winds were starting to claw at the Upper Keys.

At a veterans’ labor camp at the foot of Lower Matecumbe Key, George Pepper was instructed to use his boss’s car – a big, heavy 1934 Dodge – to take some of the veterans’ wives to safety in Miami. Sometime around 5 p.m., George and Rosalind climbed into the big automobile and set out for the short drive to the Matecumbe Hotel to pick up the women.

They never reached the hotel. For weeks, survivors and rescue workers wondered what had become of them.

They finally got a clue to the grim fates of Rosalind and George on September 18, when rescue workers found the 1934 Dodge submerged in Florida Bay, about 100 feet from shore. The storm's rising winds may have literally blown the car off the causeway. After the storm, another man who'd been driving the same road at the same time as George said a gust of wind had shoved his car into a ditch.

That same powerful gust may have pushed the Dodge into the bay.

A diver found a pair of white high-heel pumps in the submerged car, but no other sign of the young couple.
On September 19, rescue workers found Rosalind's body. The storm had hurled her onto Raccoon Key, one of the small, soggy islands that dot Florida Bay.

George’s body was found several weeks later. The storm’s ferocious winds had carried him across Florida Bay to Cape Sable at the tip of the Florida peninsula. The body was about 30 miles away from the car he'd been driving.


Isaac is Approaching the Keys

Tropical Storm Isaac is approaching the Florida Keys. The center of the storm is expected to pass over or near Key West later today.

This video was shot by Jeff Pinkus at the old Seven Mile Bridge just south of Marathon. The storm is expected to gradually strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico during the next few days as it moves to an eventual landfall somewhere on the Gulf Coast later this week. Stay tuned for more video.


Friends in Florida Sending Video, Photos of Isaac

This video was shot by Jeff Pinkus, a friend of mine in Marathon, Florida. Residents in the Florida Keys are preparing for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to cross the Keys late Sunday night or early Monday morning, move into the Gulf of Mexico, and head for an eventual landfall somewhere on the Gulf Coast later next week.
Jeff was standing on the old Seven Mile Bridge just outside Marathon when he shot this. His video shows the rising wind and northbound traffic on the new bridge leaving the Keys ahead of the storm.
I have friends in the Keys and Tampa who will be sending photos and video as Isaac approaches their area. Jeff Houck, an old friend who writes for the Tampa Tribune, is going to send photos and perhaps some video as Isaac passes Tampa in a few days, and I'll also be writing about Isaac for National Geographic News.
Check back at Drye Goods during the next few days for more Isaac pix.


Are Tar Heels Laboring Under "The Curse of Crum"?

The history of sports is filled with the colorful legends of curses that have doomed certain teams to perpetual frustration. These curses are set into motion when someone affiliated with the team does something stupid, or immoral, or unfair. For example, some believe that the Chicago Cubs have not appeared in a World Series since 1945 because an outraged fan put a curse on them after team officials wouldn't let him watch a game with his loyal but smelly goat.

So I'm wondering if University of North Carolina officials brought a curse upon the football program 25 years ago when they fired Dick Crum, who coached the Tar Heels from 1978 until 1987. Perhaps the football gods were so outraged by Crum's firing in 1987 that they decreed that UNC will never reach its coveted goal of building one of the nation's premiere college football programs without sullying its excellent academic reputation.

Tar Heel fans' hopes for joining college football's elite have been dashed repeatedly since Crum's departure. The latest blow came when former coach Butch Davis -- who had been paid a whopping salary to lead the Heels to greatness -- was fired before the start of the 2011 season after revelations of academic misconduct involving some of his players. A recent story in The News and Observer of Raleigh reported that the academic shenanigans that got Davis fired may have been going on even before he came to Chapel Hill in 2007. So there may be more unflattering revelations in the coming months, and the football program could be crippled for a long time.
But the irony of Carolina's struggle for football greatness without academic compromise is that 31 years ago, the Tar Heels were almost there under Crum, who respected academic excellence but still had his teams regularly ranked in the Top Ten.

The high-water mark of Crum's tenure at Carolina may have been November 7, 1981, when Clemson and UNC met in Chapel Hill to play one of the most important college football games in the state's history. Two schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- never known for fielding football powerhouses -- squared off in a contest that could decide the eventual national champion.
Clemson came into the game ranked third nationally by Sports Illustrated. A few weeks earlier, UNC had been ranked second by SI, but had slipped to sixth after a loss to South Carolina.

UNC lost the game, 10-8, before the largest crowd at that time to ever watch a football game in North Carolina. Clemson went on to become the NCAA's national champion. Carolina finished the season with a 10-2 record and was ranked eighth in SI's final poll.
Despite that deeply disappointing loss, it looked like Crum was going to lead the Tar Heels to everlasting glory. Crum, an Ohio native, was a no-nonsense guy who studied math and physics as an undergraduate. In 1981, he was in his fourth year as Carolina's football coach. Three of his teams had ended seasons ranked in the Sports Illustrated Top 20, and two of those teams had been ranked in the Top 10. His triumphs included the 1980 ACC championship and ACC Coach of the Year honors.

He also won four consecutive postseason bowl games against Michigan, Texas (twice) and Arkansas, teams that had attained the elite status that Tar Heel fans coveted.
Crum assembled those excellent teams without fudging on academics. Reporter Dan Coughlin, who covered sports for The Plain Dealer and WJW-TV in Cleveland, noted that Crum "abided by the letter of the law. He wouldn't tolerate any kind of cheating."

But Crum's teams had subpar seasons in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Critics said he was failing to recruit good players. His refusal to bend rules to admit talented athletes who weren't good students undoubtedly cost him wins. Still, even legendary college coaches such as Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes had an occasional off-season in the primes of their careers, and they kept their jobs, rebuilt their teams, and went on to more stellar seasons.
Despite the three mediocre seasons, by 1987 Crum had coached the Tar Heels to 72 wins, more than any other coach in UNC history. And his teams had won 22 of 29 games against in-state archrivals Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest.

But on November 16, 1987, two days after UNC lost by three points to Virginia in Charlottesville, Crum was told he'd be out of a job after the Tar Heels' season-ending game against Duke on November 21. Coughlin later wrote that he'd talked to Crum by phone that day and was stunned to learn that the coach who'd won more games than any other UNC football coach had been fired.
So if you're looking for a reason to believe that a curse descended on the UNC football program, there it is. Carolina officials fired the man who'd followed the rules and won more games than anybody else. Crum left town quietly. But as has been said many times, what goes around comes around, and his firing was the kind of thing that could set up quite a karmic payback somewhere down the road.

Coughlin, the reporter in Cleveland, asked Crum why he'd been canned. There are three or four variations of Crum's pithy response, but all of the versions essentially say the same thing -- administrators and alumni want UNC to play football like Oklahoma on Saturday and maintain the academic excellence of Harvard the rest of the week. It's a difficult balance to maintain, and if you're going to insist on academic excellence, you have to tolerate a few disappointing seasons occasionally.
Crum's firing also added credibility to rumors that he'd gotten on the wrong side of the Rams Club, the powerful, well-heeled private organization that provides much of the funding for UNC athletics.

Crum was succeeded by Mack Brown, who'd never had a winning season in his three years at Tulane. But UNC officials saw talent beneath Brown's losing record. His Carolina teams won only two games during his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, but by 1990 it looked like the Tar Heel football program had again found its savior. Brown's teams averaged eight wins for the next eight seasons.
Brown's success greatly pleased the Ram's Club, and to keep him happy, Kenan Stadium's capacity was expanded by about 10,000 seats and sparkling new buildings were built to house the football program.

But in 1997, soon after publicly vowing that he'd never leave Chapel Hill, Brown was hired as football coach at the University of Texas. His departure stunned many Tar Heel fans, but others said they'd suspected all along that Brown was a used-car salesman disguised as a football coach.
So here's the first example of what could be called "The Curse of Crum" coming into play: UNC hires a first-rate coach who shows potential for greatness, then that coach betrays their trust and the program is plunged into mediocrity.

Despite Brown's success at UNC, he didn't achieve the same numbers as Crum. He won three fewer games than his predecessor and never won an ACC championship. And even though three of Brown's teams won 10 games, he never got a team into one of the major New Year's Day bowl games, an achievement Carolina hasn't known since the days of Charley "Choo-Choo" Justice in the late 1940s.
Brown has become one of the premiere college coaches at Texas. His undefeated team won a national championship in 2005, and his string of postseason wins includes triumphs in the Rose, Cotton and Fiesta bowls.

Crum faded into obscurity after his dismissal from UNC. He struggled through three terrible seasons as coach at Kent State before leaving coaching after the 1990 season. Still, he was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
Butch Davis was hired with much fanfare in 2006, but he fell well short of Crum's record. He won 63 games during his four seasons, but by then UNC was playing more regular-season games than in the 1980s and so Davis had more chances to win more games in fewer seasons. Still, his teams never won more than eight games, never lost fewer than five games, never finished higher than fourth in the expanded ACC, and went to only one minor bowl game during his tenure.

So maybe that curse is at work again. A big name coach brought in at great expense produces teams only a notch or two above mediocre, and then is fired and disgraced because he didn't take the school's academics seriously.
So new UNC coach Larry Fedora is stepping into a deeply troubled football program. He has to deal with the NCAA punishment of the UNC football program, as well as some fans who are still angry that Davis was fired. And time will tell whether he's also saddled with The Curse of Crum.

NOTE: The sketch of Dick Crum at the top of this post is from the website of the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.