BROWN: Overdue thanks for hospitality after Christmas Eve crash

SHARE BROWN: Overdue thanks for hospitality after Christmas Eve crash
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Sharon Russell and her four daughters still remember their 22
unexpected visitors when an 11-car crash took place in front of their
rural Pontiac home on Dec. 24, 1983. | Photo provided

I told you Sunday about my grand adventure on Christmas Eve 1983, when I foolishly tried to drive to central Illinois in bad weather and wound up in an 11-car pileup.

The point wasn’t the crash itself, which happily resulted in no serious injuries.

It was the amazing aftermath in which a Pontiac farm family, Marvin and Sharon Russell, graciously welcomed all 22 accident victims into their home and took care of us until help arrived hours later.

OPINION

I’d never properly thanked them and hoped to belatedly remedy that this year, deciding I would drop off a gift basket on my way downstate to celebrate an early Christmas with my family last week.

It was only after I bought the gift basket that I realized through some online snooping that the Russells no longer lived there.

Undeterred, I dropped it off anyway, telling myself I was paying it forward.

Except I got a call the next day from the owner of the place who nicely explained I didn’t even have the right house.

A story in the local newspaper about the Christmas Eve 1983 weather and multi-car crash.

A story in the local newspaper about the Christmas Eve 1983 weather and multi-car crash.

It turns out I’d driven that stretch of road all these years thinking I’d taken refuge in a little one-story white house just across a creek when the Russells actually lived in a two-story blue house by another creek about a mile west.

Well, after that, I got serious and tracked down Sharon Russell. She now lives in Morris. She and Marvin divorced and sold the farm.

Sharon, now 76 and remarried, recalls plenty about that day.

“Every Christmas Eve, I think about this,” she told me.

Her daughters remember, too, the youngest of whom always reminds her that those unexpected guests “ate all our Christmas cookies.”

Sorry about that.

Sharon could only recall one of the drivers ever sending a real thank you.

Sorry about that, too.

For Sharon, that Christmas Eve was a tension-filled day beginning late morning when a woman came to the door to ask for a shovel. She was stuck in a snowdrift in front of the house.

Marvin tried to help the woman dig out. They didn’t last long in temperatures that never rose above minus 4 that day. They made it back inside just before the first collision.

That was Richard Rambo, then 25, a now-retired warehouse manager from Darien, who was taking his mother, Marilyn, on a family Christmas visit.

Before the two could get out of their Mercury Capri, another car smacked them from behind. Marilyn Rambo suffered a broken nose. (She was also the one smart enough to make her son later drop off a card and a check.)

With traffic sparse, it went on that way for hours. Some cars carefully picked their way through the wreckage. Others barreled into the pileup. The ever-growing group of house guests watched grimly from the picture window. It was too dangerous to be outside.

Sharon Matteson, formerly Sharon Russell, who took in 22 stranded motorists on Christmas Eve 1983 after an 11-car pileup in front of her rural home. | Provided

Sharon Matteson, formerly Sharon Russell, who took in 22 stranded motorists on Christmas Eve 1983 after an 11-car pileup in front of her rural home. | Provided

Sharon’s biggest frustration was trying to get help. She first called for a snowplow, then after the first crash, for the police. But emergency dispatchers kept telling her the road was closed.

Except it wasn’t closed. Cars kept coming.

“Well, now I need an ambulance,” Sharon remembers finally telling the dispatcher, with a decided tone of I-told-you-so.

Sharon distinctly remembers a bloodied individual lying on her floor.

That was Larry Monaghan, then 28, of Merrillville, Indiana. He lost four teeth and split his lip when his head hit the steering wheel. I told Sharon that Monaghan told me he still has the dental bridge. She can stop worrying about him.

Sharon remembers the problems of feeding everyone, saying she wasn’t “very well prepared,” as if anyone could have been.

It was long after dark before the last stranded motorist caught a ride from the tow truck.

“It could have been so much worse than it was. I was just so thankful no one was killed,” Sharon said, recounting how she almost broke down in church the next morning at Christmas services as the prior day’s stress washed over her.

She’s right. We were all very lucky we weren’t seriously hurt — and lucky the Russells were there to help us.

The Russells should know that everyone with whom I spoke is very grateful, even if we never properly expressed it.

Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

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