Remembering a tragic death

  • Roughly the place where Karol Rae Hommon and her friends sat down to look at the view. For the Recorder/Chip Ainsworth

  • A photo on a bulletin board at Mount Sugarloaf from a time when the observation deck was open. For the Recorder/Chip Ainsworth

  • According to the newspaper archive from the day that Hommon fell, the day was cloudy and gray much like it was the day she died. For the Recorder/Chip Ainsworth—

  • The Greenfield Recorder's front page on Oct. 12, 1965. FILE IMAGE

  • The observation deck is fenced off. A sign on the chain link fence says, “danger, keep out.” FOR THE RECORDER/CHIP AINSWORTH

For the Recorder
Published: 10/18/2019 7:07:21 PM

Fifty-four years ago this month, on a cool, cloudy October afternoon in South Deerfield, Police Chief Jim Rosenthal got a phone call from Charlie Sadoski, the caretaker of the 100-year-old Mt. Sugarloaf Summit House. What he heard shocked him: A young woman had fallen off the steep cliff that faces the Connecticut River.

Karol Rae Hommon, a Smith College sophomore, was the reigning Miss Alaska.

“Yesterday was Mountain Day at Smith College, a day off the girls usually spend in area mountain picnic areas,” the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette reported on its front page Tuesday, Oct. 12, 1965. “The Anchorage beauty placed 12th in the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, N.J., last month and was judged the most talented dancer.”

According to the article (which didn’t have a byline), the 21-year-old Hommon and three friends had stepped around a fence and spread a blanket to sit and enjoy the view. All four lived out of state and were perhaps unaware of the red sandstone cliff on the mountain’s east side. Indeed, it’s hard to believe they’d known they were on such a precarious perch that was perhaps hidden by tall weeds and seedlings.

Hommon slipped on wet leaves and couldn’t halt her downward momentum. She grabbed a sapling and one of her friends grabbed her wrist, but neither could halt the gravitational force that pulled her off the mountain.

According to the newspaper account, Hommon had fallen at 2:45 p.m. and landed in a tree next to a rocky ledge. State and local police climbed about 300 feet and freed her. “She was given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the half-hour descent and rushed to the hospital by Chief Rosenthal in the Deerfield cruiser.”            

State trooper Ralph Nasuti of the Shelburne Falls barracks stayed behind to interview the students, including 18-year-old Virginia Scheer, who had grabbed her wrist.

“I couldn’t hold her,” she sobbed. “I tried, but I couldn’t hold her.”

Hommon was pronounced dead at the Farren Memorial Hospital by Dr. Albert Giknis, the associate medical examiner, at 5:24 p.m. The cause of death was a fractured skull and broken neck.

News of the tragedy reached the wire services. ‘Alaska Beauty Queen Dies In Fall From 200-Foot Cliff’ reported the New York Daily News; ‘Friend Tried in Vain to Save Karol Hommon,’ headlined the Nashua Telegraph. Years later, her death was mentioned in a poem about Mt. Sugarloaf that appeared in The New Yorker.

Hommon was born in Kansas and graduated from high school in Albuquerque. She moved to Alaska with her family after her father took a civil engineering job in Anchorage. Her body was flown from Bradley Field to Kansas City and from there to Witchita where her parents had flown in from Alaska. She is buried at Golden Belt Memorial Park in Barton County, Kan.

On the anniversary of Hommon’s death, families with young children could be seen near the stone observatory that was built in the early 1970s. It replaced the Summit House, which burned to the ground (reputedly by snowmobilers who wanted to see “the old lady go down in a blaze of glory” according to a letter to the editor that appeared in this newspaper).

A few hikers walked up the summit road, others reached the top by climbing the south face trail. At the top, they gazed at the river and the western hilltowns, the same vantage that Metacomet used during King Philip’s War of 1675-78.

These days, the observation deck is fenced off. A sign on the chain-link fence near where Hommon fell reads, “danger, keep out.”

Chip Ainsworth is a freelance writer whose Keeping Score column is a regular feature on the Greenfield Recorder’s Saturday sports page.

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