A letterman sweater, Boy Scout insignia and a senior portrait.
The items kept in Betsy Elrod’s cedar chest carry the legacy of a young man for whom she has faint memories: 18-year-old Ricky Boleman, who died 50 years ago with four others when a train struck their car.
“I know this would sound absolutely crazy, but I feel like I have a memory of him playing out in the front yard with me. ... He used to grabbed me by my hand and swing me around in circles,” said Elrod, Boleman’s niece.
On Jan. 25, 1968, a train collided with a car carrying five students at the Mundy Mill Road railroad crossing near what was then Gainesville Junior College.
Boleman, Lanny Sewell, Mike Gillespie and Juliann Whitney, all students at the junior college, died at the scene. Don Cooper, a classmate, succumbed to his injuries the next day at Hall County Hospital.
Hall County Board of Commission Chairman Richard Higgins said he, Commissioner Kathy Cooper and Gainesville school board member Sammy Smith started work on a marker commemorating the lives lost 50 years ago. Higgins said there has been an outpouring of offers to help from Gainesville High alumni.
Boleman, Sewell, Gillespie and Cooper graduated from the high school, while Whitney was from Athens.
“If you had to pick and choose the nicest people in your class, you couldn’t have handpicked a nicer group of boys. Loved everybody, friendly, kind, big-hearted,” classmate Jean Brannon said.
After the crash, the Rev. Wilburn Peeples walked into First National Bank where Martha Elrod, Boleman’s sister, was working. Peeples shared the news of her brother’s death, though Boleman’s father didn’t find out until hours later.
“He didn’t know anything about it until he drove in about 6 o’clock that night and saw these cars at our house. He knew something was wrong,” Martha Elrod said.
Boleman was the junior college’s president for the freshman class. Authorities at the time of the wreck said the students’ car was headed toward the college.
“He was just a good guy, had a lot of friends. My mother and dad, of course, this destroyed their lives. They were never the same. It was the worse thing we’ve ever had to go through,” Martha Elrod said.
Brannon said she felt the crash sent everybody into a depression for several months, ultimately bringing the graduating Gainesville High class closer together.
Law officers told The Times in 1968 the train was “unable to stop for a mile and a half after the collision because the impact of the crash apparently damaged air lines to the diesel’s brakes.”
According to archived articles in The Times, school officials and students had raised and made “repeated attempts to have more warning devices placed at the site.”
Betsy Elrod said she was considering putting her uncle’s belongings in a shadow box or another to display the items.
“I just remember growing up and hearing my grandmother and my mom talk about him. They just kept his memory alive through the years by talking about what a good boy he was,” she said.
Higgins said the marker may be unveiled next month.