STILLWATER — This is the story of Will and Karen. It’s an ongoing love story.
Decades ago, two young folks working in a college athletic department bonded over their love of sports, music, movies and each other. The band U2 was a mutual favorite. Early in their courtship, they flew to Kansas City to watch U2 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Will and Karen sat down together and feasted on probably the same VHS-worthy 1990s TV series that you did. “Seinfeld.” “Friends.” They named their dog Scully after a character on “The X-Files.”
In 1996, Will and Karen were wed at Tulsa’s Will Rogers United Methodist Church. They were concerned before the ceremony. Are we going to ruin a good thing by getting married? They worried for nothing. Married life, said Karen, was “like the best thing ever.”
Karen is Karen Hancock. She’s the assistant women’s soccer coach at Oklahoma State University.
Will is Will Hancock. He was an assistant sports information director at OSU whose responsibilities included being the media contact for men’s basketball.
Twenty years ago — Jan. 27, 2001 — Will was among 10 people who died when an OSU team plane crashed following a game at Colorado.
Twenty years later, the love story endures.
Love him still? C’mon. You know the answer.
“That never goes away,” Karen said.
If Karen hears a song by the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel or the Police or U2, it’s hard not to think of Will. In that moment, the songs bring him “back.”
“I still think about him every day on some level — sometimes a little deeper thoughts than others and sometimes just a really fleeting passing thought,” Karen said. “But he’s always there.”
Will also is present in their daughter.
Andrea (Andie) was two months old when her father passed. Asked about Andie’s personality, Karen said she’s funny (kind of goofy sometimes) like her dad but also serious — serious enough to record a near-perfect score on the ACT and become a valedictorian and class president at Stillwater High School. Now Andie is a sophomore at Northwestern University.
Said Karen: “Every time she does something that reminds me of Will, I will flat out tell her ‘That’s your dad. That just reminds me of your dad.’ I will try to put into words exactly what that is. We have never shied away from speaking about him. It doesn’t ever feel like it’s too sad to talk about. I think it’s important to still talk about him. He was very real.”
Karen saw an almost instant change in Will after Andie was born. She said Will was a workaholic who was driven by responsibility and duty. After Andie’s birth, he worked harder to get home faster. Karen knows Will would be busting with pride over Andie’s accomplishments.
“He would have loved that she decided to be a journalism major,” Karen said. “He would have loved to know she got into Northwestern. He would have loved everything about her. He did love everything about her. He just thought she was the coolest thing. He couldn’t wait to get home to see that little tiny baby. And this was before she could even really smile. The week he died, he was convinced on that Wednesday that she had smiled at him. I’m like, ‘No babe. That’s gas. She can’t actually smile yet.’ But he was adamant. ‘No. She smiled at me. That was not gas. That was intentional.’”
Let’s score it as a smile.
“I just knew. It felt different ...”
The first chapter of the Will and Karen story was scripted in 1992.
Karen (then Horstman) was a graduate assistant coach at Arkansas-Little Rock. She went to grab the mail in an area where athletic department staffers were crammed into a temporary work space. There he was: New guy — new cute guy. Karen picked up the mail and, eventually, picked up the male.
“New guy” was Will, the university’s freshly hired sports information director. Will and Karen met formally at a university mixer. She tried to strike up a chat by asking about the shirt he was wearing. The chat went nowhere because Will was nervous and didn’t know what to say.
Because Will had to be present at soccer games, there were additional opportunities to interact. One of those occasions, Karen said she “blatantly” put it out there that her birthday was approaching.
Will took the bait and said they should do something to celebrate. Her birthday came on a game day. The plan: She would get cleaned up after the game and Will was going to call. She waited. And waited. And waited. The phone never rang.
Upset, Karen spotted Will the next day and yelled at him from across a gym. “Hey, thanks for calling me last night.” Will sprinted over and pleaded his case. He said he called and no one answered. He rattled off the phone number he called. It was one digit shy of being correct. Hmmm. He was granted a second chance and they went on a first date a few days later.
Karen discovered that Will had many appealing qualities. He was funny and smart as a whip and kind in his dealings with people. One month into dating, she told people he was the one.
“I just knew,” she said. “It felt different than anything I had felt in my whole life.”
Then came an obstacle: Eager to climb the career ladder, Karen took a coaching job at South Alabama, which meant she and Will would be in a long distance relationship. She figured it wouldn’t be all that problematic. They had to pick their spots to see each other anyway because their jobs kept them busy. They vowed to talk on the phone daily (which they did) and travel to visit each other once a month. The commute got longer when Will departed Arkansas-Little Rock to take a job with the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in Indianapolis.
Karen started the South Alabama job in June of 1994. By January, after soccer season had ended, she was asking herself this: What have I done? She wasn’t happy with “just” the job. This wasn’t as great as being around Will.
One month later, they were engaged. Funny story about that: Karen had been advised she should attend a Mardi Gras ball while living in Mobile, Ala. Will said he couldn’t go because he was in the midst of basketball season (hectic season). Fine. Karen told him she would go with a male workout buddy instead. She and the workout buddy (“kind of a bodybuilder”) were just friends. Upon hearing about this development, Will got motivated to free up his schedule and escort Karen to the ball. He proposed in her apartment — he in a tux, she in a sequined gown — prior to the event.
OK, now what? We’re still living in different states — and the engagement lasted 18 months.
Karen, a Tulsan, moved back to her home state in 1996. She couldn’t pass up an opportunity to become the first head soccer coach in OSU history. After Karen and Will got married in June of 1996, they zipped off to a Sandals resort in Jamaica for a honeymoon and then returned to cities that were 700 miles apart. At the wedding, people advised the newlyweds they should live in the same place.
Will was hoping for a career opportunity in Stillwater. He was ready to tend bar or do something else out of his field, if necessary. A position on OSU’s sports information staff opened a few months after the wedding. Will had a stellar resume and a vocal supporter within the athletic department. He came home.
‘I wasn’t going to have to do it by myself’
Things are never exactly the same following a tragedy. But Karen was asked when she knew it would be OK. She said there are different levels of that.
“Part of me feels like I’m not sure I started feeling really, really OK until about 15 years after,” she said. “That’s a long time. But ... at some level I knew within that (first) year it was probably going to be OK. I just had such great support and was starting to figure out people were going to be around to help me and I wasn’t going to have to do it by myself.”
Chief among supporters were Karen’s parents, Steve and Linda Horstman.
Karen said her father managed a Firestone store in Tulsa for 30 years. He retired a few months before the plane crash.
Said Karen: “He came to me and said, ‘Listen, your mom and I are not married to Tulsa. We can easily move over here and help you. Would you like that?’ And I just broke down crying and said ‘yes.’ I didn’t know a whole lot, but I knew that sounded like a good idea. I was going to take that help.”
Steve and Linda relocated to Stillwater so they could assist in raising Andie. Karen could go to work and know she was leaving her daughter in good hands.
Remember the Arkansas-Little Rock coach who sacrificed personal life for career gain by moving to South Alabama? Karen did the opposite after the crash. She transitioned from head coach to assistant because (A) it created an opportunity for fellow staffer Colin Carmichael to become a head coach and (B) the move allowed her to devote more time to Andie.
Karen recalled being stressed about something work-related when she was still head coach. That spilled over to home life. Once, after Karen used harsh words, little Andie (maybe 6 at the time) looked up at her and said “Mama are you mad at me?” Karen assured Andie that she wasn’t mad at her.
“But it was a real check for me, like I’ve got to get this under control because we can’t be raising a kid like that,” Karen said.
In hindsight, Karen said stepping aside was probably the best thing she could have done for Andie, at least while continuing to work.
Andie turned out fine. A budding writer, she wrote a story about her father to go along with this one.
On the night Will died, it dawned on Karen that she was a widow at age 32. It didn’t compute. That’s not how life is supposed to work.
There’s a memorial in Colorado dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the plane crash. When Karen is in the Denver area for recruiting or other reasons, she makes a side trip to visit the memorial.
Karen said she has tried to support others who have endured tragedies, but the only thing you can do is offer an ear or share bits of personal experiences. You can’t give people what they really want, which is to have a loved one back.
Karen, who consented to an interview in advance of the 20th anniversary of the crash, was asked what message she wanted to share with people. She said she is just one person who experienced a significant loss at a young age. She said there are people who haven’t had to face a loss like that — and it’s great that they haven’t. But she wants people who encounter loss to know it’s survivable and you can be OK.
Karen recounted a past conversation with Janet Griffith, who was in her 60s at the time of the chat and who had lost a husband some 40 years earlier. Karen knew right away, from seeing and hearing Griffith talk about her loss, that “it” never really goes away.
“And I think when you really do love somebody like that, it doesn’t go away. You stop loving them just because they died? Not really.”