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Thursday December 12th, 2019 10:36PM

Rock tragedy: Music superstars, small suburb forever linked

By The Associated Press
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FINNEYTOWN, Ohio (AP) — The concrete bench in a small northern Cincinnati suburb depicts a guitar, with the message “My Generation” just below it.

In the background are plaques with the faces of three teenagers, Jackie Eckerle, Karen Morrison and Stephan Preston, frozen in time 40 years ago. Bricks in the plaza around the bench carry eight other names.

All 11 were killed in a frantic stampede of people trying to get into the British rock band The Who’s concert on Dec. 3, 1979, at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum. The city of Finneytown suffered disproportionately, and its three losses included the two youngest victims, 15-year-olds Eckerle and Morrison. Their schoolmates say well over 100 other people from Finneytown were there.

“Everyone’s connected to it, everywhere you go around here,” said Fred Wittenbaum, who was a freshman at Finneytown High School then but did not attend the concert. “Either they went to the concert, or they had a friend or a family member who was there.”

Since then, the community of around 12,000 people, many living in ranch-style homes built years before the concert, has been inextricably linked with The Who, which was already well on the way to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with such hits as “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Can’t Explain,” and “My Generation,” an anthem of rebellious youth.

Most of the blame afterward focused on the first-come, first-served arrangement for seating that saw thousands of fans line up for hours ready to charge toward the coveted floor spots, and on confusion over and lack of preparation for when the doors were opening. Besides those trampled in the stampede, some two dozen other fans were injured.

Frontman Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend, the last survivors of the original band, say they have struggled emotionally over the years with the concert carnage, which they didn’t know about until their show was ending.

“Because there’s always a certain amount, ‘If I hadn’t been doing this, it wouldn’t have happened,’ you know,” Daltrey said during an unpublicized visit last year to the Finneytown memorial site. “That’s just human nature. That’s what we carry with us.”

“It took a long time for us to get a sense that this was not just about the 11 kids, it was about the community,” Townshend told The Associated Press in a recent interview in New York.

The sad stories and traumatic memories among Finneytown alums evolved three decades later into a plan to memorialize their friends.

John Hutchins was playing an acoustic set at a nearby venue in December 2009 and dedicated songs such as The Who’s “Love Ain’t For Keeping” to those who died at the concert. Hutchins was at The Who concert; he skipped school that day, got to the coliseum nearly seven hours early to be among the first in line, and got close enough to the stage to see The Who’s song list.

Fellow Finneytown High alum Steve Bentz, who wasn’t at the concert, approached Hutchins after his performance with a thought, that “we should do something.” The thought soon grew into the memorial bench.

They joined with Wittenbaum and Walt Medlock — who remembers being pressed tightly against Preston before making the possibly life-saving decision to work his way out of the crowd — to create the P.E.M. scholarship fund, using the last-name initials of their three schoolmates.

“We wanted to take what was a terrible tragedy and try and turn it into something that could be looked at as good,” Wittenbaum explained. “We wanted to pay it forward.”

Launched in 2010, the scholarships reward three Finneytown students with $5,000 each for the study of music or any other arts. There have awarded 27 so far.

Auctions and raffles at an annual December show featuring music by alumni at the school’s performing arts center help pay for the scholarships. The Who became involved in the third year, making an exclusive DVD for showing at that year’s benefit with comments from the band about the tragedy and new concert footage.

More aid from the band followed. Last year, Wittenbaum drove Daltrey from a private airstrip near Dayton to view the Finneytown memorials that include artwork, personal items and photos of the three in a Who-donated display case. Daltrey also met with relatives of those killed and with fans who attended the concert.

“It’s been a really cathartic process for everybody,” Wittenbaum said.

Daltrey-autographed books, albums, guitars and other items have been sold online, including on the band’s official site, to add to the fund. The P.E.M. leaders’ next goal is to see Daltrey and Townshend perform in Cincinnati for the first time since the deadly concert. In the AP interview, Townshend said the band plans to return to Cincinnati.

An announcement is expected Tuesday night, after a 40th anniversary documentary featuring interviews with Daltrey and Townshend airs on WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

Alleson Arnold, 18, among the latest scholarship winners, moved to Finneytown several years ago and soon learned about the pain the community has felt. She said she is “very grateful” for the fund that will help her study fashion and design.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that I’m the same age as many of them,” she said. “I get to do the things that I want to be doing, but all that was taken away from them.”

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Associated Press writer John Carucci contributed from New York.

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Follow Dan Sewell at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell

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