Film helped Temple professor face family's death 45 years later

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Hali Sheriff trains on uneven parallel bars at George Nissen's facility in 1966.

For 45 years, Paul Sheriff didn't talk about his childhood.

"Compartmentalizing things made it easier to move forward," said Sheriff, 60, a professor of graphic design at Temple University's Tyler School of Art. "I didn't want sympathy. I didn't want pity. I thought those were bad emotions, but I'm learning they're not."

Then, seven years ago, Sheriff had earned a sabbatical, a time of contemplation, and he decided he needed to face the disaster that changed the trajectory of his life at the young age of 10.

In June 1966, Sheriff's parents and his 14-year-old sister were killed in a small-plane crash. Sister Hali, coached by their mother, was considered one of the most promising gymnasts in the world. Those who know the sport said she was expected to crush the competition during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, blazing a new trail not only for herself and her family but for the entire American gymnastics program.

Sheriff's documentary, My Sister Hali, is his way of working through his long-buried grief, telling his family's unusual story and sharing a forgotten stepping-stone in sporting history. He is seeking money to complete the film, hoping to raise $50,000 on GoFundMe for editing and loan repayment. A companion book, with photos and newspaper clips, has already been published and is available at mysisterhali.com.

Once the film is complete, Sheriff hopes to share it via public television, perhaps enter it in a few film festivals, and make sure today's up-and-coming gymnasts have a chance to see one of the sport's finest. In June, he went to the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif., to drum up interest in his project. "No young gymnast understands what it was like to tumble on a hardwood floor. There were no mats," he said.

Making the film and facing the past, although cathartic, was tough, said Nancy Sheriff, Paul's wife of 26 years. He returned to Illinois to interview teammates he hadn't seen in decades. He opened his mother's scrapbook for the first time since 1966. He's learned more than he wanted to know about the crash site where the plane his father was piloting smashed nose-first in a remote cornfield.

But the positives of making the documentary have outweighed the horrors, she said, as "it's helped him resolve some internal strife. It's a relief for him to be able to talk about his real life and what really happened to him."

It's also been an eye-opener for her. When she saw photos of Paul's mother for the first time, she realized who the older of their two daughters resembled.

"It always struck me because I always thought she looked kind of like my husband, but not quite, and she doesn't look like me," Nancy Sheriff said. "And then I saw Paul's mom and I thought, 'Oh, of course.' "

Toby Towson remembers when the Sheriff family moved to Blue Mound, Ill., population 1,500, in 1960. The Rev. Harold Sheriff helmed the Methodist church. His wife, Virginia, put a set of uneven parallel bars in the parsonage garage for her gymnastics-loving daughter, and in 1962, she founded the Blue Mound Gym Club as its coach.

"It set the course for my entire life," said Towson, 68, who was the NCAA gymnastics champion in the floor exercise twice, and who built a career as a dancer and acrobat. "I lived and breathed gymnastics. I was in the gym six days a week, putting in up to three hours at a time. And on the seventh day, we probably played gymnastics at my house in the yard."

In the 1960s, the sport wasn't really popular in America, Towson said. Female gymnasts generally started competing at age 15 and retired around age 30. Even as a preteen, Hali was better than everyone around her.

"She was a prodigy, a Mozart, a genius," he said. "Nobody had any idea that children could be held to such a high level of gymnastics, and she was this kid who was beautiful and charming and charismatic."

Cindy Strum, one of the Blue Mound Gym Club members, says in the documentary trailer: "It wasn't really until 1984 that I was watching the Olympics that the level of gymnastics was just starting to touch where Hali was 20 years previously."

Paul, four years younger than his sister, also was a member of the team. He loved gymnastics so much that any punishment he got from his mother had to involve keeping him out of the gym.

He rode his bike around his small town, visiting friends. He played jacks with his sister. His father, an amateur pilot, once talked Paul, then a third grader, into taking a quick flight to Oklahoma with him instead of sitting for a spelling test.

"That's probably why I still can't spell today," Sheriff said.

Within four years, the Blue Mound Club had a national reputation for excellence with Hali its biggest star. In 1965, the 12-year-old beat college gymnasts and a Belgian Olympian to win the all-around title in the Midwest Open for Women. A year later, Hali competed in England, where organizers gave the Sheriffs a silver plaque with the inscription, "Mrs. Sheriff, English Gymnastics Tour, February/March 1966. Thank you for bringing us Hali, the finest woman gymnast we have ever seen."

After the funerals, the unimaginable loss was compounded when Sheriff was sent to live with relatives in Western Pennsylvania. His older brother, John, then 15 and now deceased, was sent to military school.

It was 45 years before he returned to his hometown and the community that had once embraced his family.

Sheriff connected with a woman whose mother, brother, and cousin were also killed in the crash. She worried Sheriff wouldn't remember her.

"I remember all the times I was at their house. She had polio. . . . I remember she played flute. I remember her mother was an amazing cellist and beautiful," he said.

Still grieving, the woman didn't want to be interviewed for the documentary, but she did share a letter written by her aunt, mother of the cousin killed in the crash. In it, the writer described her 4-year-old daughter's body after the crash as resembling "just a dear broken little doll, quite unreal with her head injuries." The bodies of the two women on the plane were difficult to identify, she wrote. Sheriff's father was thrown more than 400 feet from the cockpit.

Sheriff had questions he wanted to resolve for himself: Why didn't anyone from the gymnastics club or Blue Mound reach out to him after the crash?

Towson was in college out of state. The distance from Blue Mound and the newness of college allowed him not to deal with the pain.

"In my mind, I didn't let them die. I had fantasies they were alive somewhere," he said. "Three or four years later, I had a dream that Hali was coming to Michigan State and I had to call around to find her a nice family to stay with while she was in town. I woke up and it was like getting a slap in the face."

The other team members, too, were enveloped in their own grief.

But coming to terms with his loss by offering this final love letter to his family has "absolutely" helped Sheriff, he said.

"I want [the film] to help people appreciate those who have inspired us, who have light in their eyes that makes us better people, who have given us their time and love.

"I'd also like people who have struggled to address the difficulties to know they're not alone."