Brief Lives: The Story of Three Victims of the Who's Cincinnati Disaster - Rolling Stone
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Brief Lives: The Story of Three Victims of the Who’s Cincinnati Disaster

Friends and family remember Stephan ‘Pips’ Preston, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison

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Roger Daltrey of The Who performs onstage in 1977.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Stephan Preston first encountered death at the age of fourteen when his aging cat Macska passed on. The lack of dignity in the event did not quite register until a couple of days later. Another of the family cats took ill and Stephan accompanied his mother to the veterinarian. Never one to sit still, Stephan took a walk around the building while his mother read magazines in the waiting room. When he returned, his face was ashen with horror. Apparently pitched out a rear window until the janitor had time to bury it, Macska’s black, furry corpse lay in the weeds. Stephan, a walking catastrophe for his and his family’s material possessions, learned that day to respect one nonliving thing: a small blue box in which he kept his mementos of Macska. No one but he was allowed to touch it.

Stephan Preston second encountered death at the Cincinnati Who concert. He was nineteen, and the death was his own. His friends called him Pips, after the children’s story character Pippi Longstocking, with whom he shared long, flyaway hair and a free spirit, both of which were beyond mortal (certainly his mom’s) control. Impulse, you could say, was the dominant theme of his life. There was that time he went camping with his buddies and decided to cross a train trestle over a deep gorge. He was three quarters to the other side when a fast freight came charging at him and he almost didn’t make it back. His family still shudders to think of the time he went camping with them and took a “trust walk” (blindfolded) along a rugged cliff. And finally, after waiting six hours to see the Who, he saw two girls he knew from his home in Finneytown collapse into the pile of bodies. He clawed his way over to help and got trampled himself.

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After his death, nobody could remember exactly how big Pips was. All that hair made it hard to tell. A reasonable guess is no taller than five feet seven, no heavier than 120 pounds. The girls he’d tried to save, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison, were fifteen years old. Jackie was about five feet tall and under ninety pounds, Karen about five five and just over a hundred pounds. The force that crushed the air out of their lungs bent a tubular steel guardrail at the door four inches off center.

As in the rest of the industrial Midwest, they take music seriously in Finneytown, an upper-middle-class suburb north of Cincinnati and south of Mt. Healthy (so named because it was a refuge from the cholera epidemic in 1850). Given the options of corrupt politicians, loathsome evangelists and rock & roll, kids don’t agonize much about what’s worth believing in. They take their faith loud and orthodox. The administration at Finneytown High has set up a wheel in the cafeteria that the students spin to determine which radio station will come over the loudspeakers during lunch. If the kids hear any disco or punk, they spin the wheel again until they hear some Zep or Tull or Stones or Who – hardly any group that hasn’t been playing since before they were born. They are of a generation without its own music, but they love what they inherited no less than their Woodstock forebears. Probably more.

Even among the faithful, Jackie Eckerle was considered ardent. Eric Clapton was her patron saint. She talked of him endlessly, and would argue with anyone that those weird noises at the end of “Layla,” her favorite song, were birds tweeting. She wrote Clapton’s name in big letters on all her notebooks – that and school sucks to the max.

“She really hated biology,” says her best friend, Tina Eliopulos, 15, sitting in the living room of Anne and David Votaw, mother and stepfather of Pips Preston. “The teacher would ask her questions and she would say, ‘Those words don’t mean anything to me.’ She skipped it her last day and sat in the nurse’s office because she was so excited about the Who. I was going to sell my ticket, but she talked me into going by saying they were almost as good as Eric Clapton.”

About twenty-five teenagers have come over to the Votaws’ to reminisce about Pips, Jackie and Karen. It is four days after the deaths. They still burst into tears occasionally during the conversation, but the tragedy is far enough away now that they can also laugh over their fonder memories.

“Jackie and I used to go into department stores and act like hunchbacks and speak strange foreign languages,” continues Tina. “But she was real shy around strangers. She’d turn bright red if you gave her a compliment.”

“What about Jackie’s school activities?” I ask.

“We did gymnastics together,” says Tina. “The coach didn’t like us because we stuck up for ourselves. We had this tradition of getting obnoxious every Friday at practice – ya know, refusing to do our warm-ups, carrying on as loud as possible. It was a weekly thing, but it sorta had become daily.”

“Any other personal details?” I ask.

“She never wore a bikini in the summer because she was so skinny that her hipbones stuck out,” says Tina.

“She was taking fat pills from the health-food store,” says Tina’s older sister, Ann. “She was real proud that she’d gone from seventy-eight to eighty-three pounds in the last few months.”

“What about Karen?” I ask.

“She would go to a party and sit and watch everybody,” says Mark Parchmann. “But she never said anything. She just stood there and smiled.”

“I took her out once,” says Tracy Caudill. “She never talked unless she was spoken to.”

The girls, however, say Karen could talk forever once she got to know you, and was a mean hand with her animal crackers in a food fight. When she moved to Finneytown three years ago, she spent a lot of time hanging out next door at the Fairbankses’, where they had ten kids to bring her out of her shell.

“The first year she lived here, she didn’t say anything,” says Kathy Fairbanks. “She was so quiet that you could leave the house and forget she was visiting.”

“She gave me the shirt off her back once, literally,” says Janie Fairbanks. “She’d do anything you asked her. It was just in the last couple of months that she worked up the courage to say no to me for the first time. I hugged her when she did.”

“She would never hit back,” says Beth Fairbanks. “If she’d fought hard at the Who concert, she might have gotten away. Jackie was too small to even try, but Karen was too gentle.”

“Is it true the Who was her first concert?” I ask.

“That’s what the newspapers said,” replies Beth. “But she snuck to Eric Clapton with Jackie before.”

Everyone laughs at the mere mention of Pips. He could get away with anything, and often did, they agree, because of his smile. He could make up a word or a phrase on the spot to drain the tension out of any situation. Like when somebody got hyper, he would command, “Alleviate yourself from rheumatic discomfort,” only real fast so you could hardly understand what he was saying. Or when something got in his way, he would call it an “uncool reality.”

“He used to call me an uncool reality,” says Mrs. Votaw, who wears wire-rim glasses and appears much younger than her forty years. “He was very frustrating to be the mother of. He was always inviting twenty of his friends over when I needed to work. He was quite stubborn.”

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“I think you were both stubborn,” pronounces his little sister, Ellen.

“Did he have any idea what he wanted to do with his life?” I ask.

“He was talking about going to truck-driving college,” says Bob Becker.

“His mother wanted him to go to regular college,” says Mrs. Votaw. “I think he felt he had too much education at home. His father is a linguistics professor, his stepfather is going back to school for another master’s, and I teach reading and writing. But I think he would have become interested in something eventually.”

The kids drift off around ten and Mrs. Votaw gives me a tour of the house. At the end of the living room is a case once full of her doll collection that was recently decimated by burglars. She points to a small sculpture of a hot-air balloon suspended from the ceiling. “You know what that is?” she asks, leaving me stumped.

“It’s a toilet bulb,” she says. “One day the toilet wouldn’t flush. I checked the mechanism, and sure enough, the bulb was gone. I asked Stephan what had happened, and he said he was using it to make my Christmas present. I asked, ‘Why didn’t you buy another bulb?’ and he said he didn’t have any money, so I ended up paying for a new one.

“He was quite a talented sculptor, actually. Art was the only subject he liked in high school. In everything else, he did the absolute minimum to pass. He would say, ‘I know I’m smart and I don’t have to prove it to anyone.”‘

She takes me to Pips’ bedroom with some trepidation. The bed is an old mattress on the floor, well below the waterline from the flood of molding sweat socks, street signs, rumpled posters and dogeared magazines on the floor. Fading paisley bedspreads hang from the ceiling. A collage of dope pictures dominates the left wall.

“I want you to know why you’re here,” she says, standing in the middle of the wreckage. “Some of the broadcast media have behaved like vultures through this, sending film crews in trucks to cover the funerals, always sticking microphones in our faces. Every time they did a simple news update, they would show a paramedic beating on someone’s chest. But I decided to let you in my house because Rolling Stone was Pips’ favorite magazine.”

For neither the first nor the last time on this story, my own eyes fill up with tears.

“My husband said Pips was smiling when he identified the body at the morgue,” she says. “I think he died peacefully, because he was helping those girls. I think he lived a pleasant life. Ellen opened the little blue box before the funeral. She picked the best picture of Macska and put it in the casket.”

Mrs. Votaw rearranges some rubble on Pips’ dresser and continues. “I never understood his music. When I grew up, I was interested in ballet and theater. But I’ll have to learn about rock & roll now. I won’t allow his death to be in vain. Someone else’s greed killed him, and it must not happen again.”

We turn to leave, stopping short when I see a photograph of four Hell’s Angels beating a man to death with pool cues.

“My God,” I falter. “He taped a picture of Altamont over his door. He couldn’t have been more than nine.”

“Altamont?” asks Pips’ mother. “What’s that?”

This story is from the January 24th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.


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