By Kari Hoglund Kounkel
Twenty years ago, on April 10, 1997, the community of Monticello heard news of a tragic crash between a Hoglund Transportation school bus and a Barton Sand and Gravel truck just a few miles west of town.
We grieved for the three students lost in that crash, and we cheered for the 10 students as they recovered from injuries and returned to school. To a person, those of us who experienced the news that day can recall where we were and what we were doing. We remember being horrified, and worrying about where our own children were. Many people have been sharing their stories in the wake of reading anniversary memorials in the newspaper and online. Even those who didn’t experience that day firsthand have something to say. People are healing, but no one has forgotten.
There was a fourth fatality that day, too. Truck driver John “Jack” Doyle, 42, of Zimmerman, Minnesota, lost his life as well. At home that afternoon, his three children, Mike, Tom, and Laura, heard the news.
“I was so excited about my first communion,” recalls Laura, who was 8 years old in 1997. “It meant so much to my dad, and I wanted to get the prayers just right. I was practicing them when our neighbor and aunt arrived to pick us up at school.”
“Our dad had received a letter from his company. He was getting a safe driving award. So when we got picked up, we thought we were going to a surprise party for our dad,” said Tom, who was 10 years old. “When we pulled in our driveway, it was full of cars, so we thought the surprise party was at our house.”
Instead, they heard the news of their father’s crash and death from their mother. They were devastated.
“Tom and Laura both cried right away,” said Mike, then 12 years old. “I was never much of a crier. We didn’t really understand what had happened, and I wanted to see the news. I waited until everyone was in bed that night before I watched the reports on television.”
All three of Doyle’s kids spoke of their father with great love and affection.
“I was a Daddy’s girl,” Laura said. “I would get up when mom left for work every morning, and snuggle by dad until he got up for work. Then I helped make his lunch; I popped the popcorn and made his iced tea. Before he left for work, he tucked me in his favorite blue chair, and I watched cartoons until the boys said it was time to get ready for school.” Today, Laura is a stay-at-home mom, with two small children. She is writing her own book and hopes to share some of her story with others. Eldest son, Mike, speaks of Doyle’s love for his wife, and hers for him. “She called him her hero,” he remembers. “And at his funeral, they played the song ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ I can’t hear that song anymore without remembering my dad.”
Tom shared photographs of his father – and his truck. “He loved his truck. He kept it clean and in good repair. He would come get me sometimes, so I could ride with him. He was such a good driver.” Tom has an affinity with his father’s love of truck driving. “I worked other places, but ended up driving a truck. I feel connected with my dad while I’m working. And I have been able to connect with some of the people who worked with my dad all those years ago because I work there. They have great memories of his kindness.”
In the days following the crash, the family received calls from many well-wishers, but also from angry people. “We received death threats and heard kids chanting ‘Doyles’ dad is dead’ on the school bus,” Tom said.
Laura and Mike remember being afraid too. Laura tells about a neighbor who dropped off some cookies his wife had made. “He left a message on our voice mail saying ‘check your mailbox.’ After all that was happening, my mom was scared and called the fire department,” she said. “We all sort of laughed when it turned out to be a bag of cookies. But it was a scary time for our family.”
Mike remembers some of their classmates and neighbors being unkind, and that someone destroyed their mailbox. His reaction, he claims, was more angry than his siblings’ reactions. “I tended to react with anger and physical aggression. I didn’t know what I should do.” He ultimately decided to serve time in the U.S. Army, and was injured during his military service. He speaks fondly of a road trip he shared with his mother when he was coming home for leave in 2013: “She wouldn’t even let me drive. She wanted to do it. So we had that long trip together; she brought me home.”
Their mother struggled. Having lost her hero, she cycled through health issues, alcohol abuse, and deep grief. “She just couldn’t live without him anymore. She wanted to be with him so badly,” Tom remembers. She took her life on March 21, 2014, and found her way back to her husband, her children agree.
“There were two boys and one girl that were lost that day in your community,” Laura said. “And two boys and one girl in a community a short distance away lost their father … I remember feeling like I didn’t have a purpose anymore: I wouldn’t be daddy’s little girl anymore. I lost my identity the day my dad died.”
Despite their great losses, the Doyle children have found themselves. Their family has grown in recent years, with each of the Doyle children finding a deeply beloved spouse, and starting their own families.
They have built strong bonds with one another, despite the struggles in the earlier years of loss. They value one another and the new generation of their family greatly.
They share deep faith, too. “Our dad would be glad about that,” Tom said.
Editor’s Note: Kari Hoglund Kounkel, Monticello author of “Unspoken Sorrow: Whispers From a Broken Heart,” met with the three children of John “Jack” Doyle: Mike Oswald, Tom Oswald, and Laura Kay Nowak. They recently shared the story of their father with her after reading an online series of book excerpts published by the Monticello Times.