Remembering the death of Lions’ waterboy Peter Whyte

Peter Whyte was a water boy for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s.

Peter Whyte was a waterboy for the Detroit Lions in the early 1950s. He was killed in a plane crash in 1956 at the age of 15.

As we all go about our busy lives, most of us give scant thought to the names behind the fountains, buildings, freeways, veterans’ posts, bridges, streets, and parks we encounter every day. In the case of the Peter A. Whyte Memorial Auditorium at St. John Hospital in Grosse Pointe, however, a flicker of recognition sometimes crosses the face of an older patient or visitor when they see the name and the bronze portrait near the entrance of the lower-level auditorium:

Peter Whyte….say, wasn’t he the waterboy who died in that horrible plane crash back in the ‘50s? The one where a couple of airliners ran into each other over the Grand Canyon?

Yes, he’s the one, a victim of the mid-air collision that on the morning of June 30, 1956 killed all 128 people aboard the two planes. At the time, it was the deadliest commercial aviation disaster in U.S. history. The tragedy was especially big news in Detroit. Fourteen of the victims were Detroiters on their way back home from California, including Peter, who had just celebrated his 15th birthday.

The Grosse Pointe youngster actually had quit lugging a pail for the Detroit Lions a couple of years earlier, when he was sent away to a private school in the East. The boy had a privileged life, but he was no spoiled slacker. His father was Ray Whyte, an industrialist and prominent Chevrolet dealer who also was a major stockholder in the Lions and a club director. It was his father who had gotten him the job in the early ‘50s, just as Bobby Layne’s Lions started their run of three straight division titles.

“Peter was a little fellow who didn’t let his status…keep him from doing menial tasks cheerfully for the players and coaches,” wrote Detroit Free Press reporter Bob Latshaw. “He took his job seriously.” He even had regulation jerseys for himself and two helpers with the numbers ½, ¼, and ⅛ sewn on.

Peter reluctantly left his job after the 1953 season, when he was 12 and was sent off to school in Connecticut, but the team’s “most loyal fan” continued to follow the team through weekly long-distance phone calls with his dad. On occasion, when the Lions were playing in the East, he’d travel to games to be close to his heroes. The players liked him, especially big end Leon Hart, who filled the role of surrogate father.

Peter was an excellent swimmer and golfer and a fine student. In the summer of 1956, his father rewarded him with a trip to California, where he stayed with a friend’s family. His father encouraged him to remain there until after the July 4th holiday, but the conscientious boy was determined to return to Detroit to start a new summer job on the day that he had promised his employer. That’s how he found himself on United flight 718 from Los Angeles.

Air safety was nothing like it is today, though the skies were rapidly filling up in the post-World War II boom that saw aviation rapidly replace trains as the most common mode of long-distance travel. On that morning, United 718 was flying parallel to another airliner, TWA flight 2, at 21,000 feet. They were beyond the reach of radar, flying under conditions known as “see and be seen.” Air traffic controllers knew of both planes’ flight paths, but they were under no obligation to inform the pilots of their possible crash course. That was the pilots’ responsibility.

Unfortunately, neither saw the other’s plane until it was too late. Investigators later speculated that the pilots of both planes had been treating passengers to views of the Grand Canyon when the airliners, both skirting the same cloud formation, violently crossed paths at about 10:30 a.m. The catastrophic collision occurred four miles above the Earth.

At a restaurant, where the Whyte family was waiting to celebrate Peter’s homecoming, news of the disaster came over the radio. Then the airline called. Over the coming weeks, recovery teams worked in the dangerous and remote location, slowly bringing out remains and wreckage. The debris field, spread out over a deep, rugged gorge at the east end of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, was never completely cleared. In 2014, the area was named a National Historical Landmark, an unusual designation that underscored the accident’s importance in aviation history. The isolated area is off-limits to the public.

Many unidentified victims were buried in a nearby memorial. Ultimately, Peter was interred at a mausoleum at Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan.

“There’ll be a big void around the clubhouse next fall,” Latshaw wrote just before the Lions opened camp in the summer of 1956. “One of the nicest little guys ever to tote a duffle bag for the Lions will be missing.”

But not forgotten. Family friends launched a drive to build some type of memorial to the boy. Over the coming years, funds were raised, architects and contractors were hired, and the resulting auditorium was dedicated in 1975.

The disaster was the catalyst for major change, most importantly the formation of the Federal Aviation Authority and a severe reining in of the previously uncontrolled skies. According to Adrienne LaFrance, “The crash response eventually led to the development of nationwide radar, collision avoidance systems, flight-data recorders, and sophisticated navigation tools. In other words, much of the infrastructure of modern aviation security can be traced back to June 30, 1956, the day of the Grand Canyon mid-air collision.”

The changes came too late to help Peter Whyte, but they undoubtedly saved many lives in years to come—an outcome that would have pleased the erstwhile waterboy and the Lions’ “warmest fan.”