When Michigan Week rolls around, members of Buckeye Nation naturally think of Wayne Woodrow Hayes, Ohio State’s iconic football coach who wanted — deeply, passionately, and unequivocally — to beat Michigan every year.
Recently I was near Columbus’ Union Cemetery. It’s tucked right next to Route 315, one of the main thoroughfares that fans take to get to Ohio Stadium. It’s also the location of Woody Hayes’ grave, and I decided to pay a visit.
Ohio State’s famous coach is buried next to his beloved wife, Anne, beneath a simple stone headstone in an unremarkable part of the cemetery. His headstone, however, bears a memorable and beautiful quote: “And in the night of death, hopes sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.”
As befits Hayes — a much more interesting, multi-faceted man than the media caricatures of the fiery coach ever depicted — the evocative quote has an interesting back story. It is a quote of Robert G. Ingersoll, a towering 19th century figure who is little remembered today. Ingersoll was a brilliant and accomplished lawyer, politician — he famously described Republican James Blaine as the “plumed knight of Maine” — defender of Darwin and the theory of natural selection, and religious skeptic.
The entire quote from Ingersoll, attributed by the 1919 edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to Ingersoll’s statement At His Brother’s Grave, reads: “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud—and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word. But in the night of Death Hope sees a star and listening Love can hear the rustling of a wing.”
What better expression of the frail needs of the human condition for reassurance when confronted with the deep void of death? And what does it say about the purportedly knuckle-dragging football coach when he chooses such a quote to mark his place of eternal rest?
When I visited Woody Hayes’ grave, a fan had carefully placed tiny pieces of homemade candy, in the shape of Brutus Buckeye’s face, on the top of the headstone, and another admirer had perched a small, painfully cute stuffed bear wearing an Ohio State sweater on the front of the marker. They were part of the graveside scene, next to a military marker and an American flag moving gently in the breeze. As I stood there thinking of Coach Hayes, I couldn’t help but wonder whether those dedicated and well-meaning fans, perhaps, appreciated only a small fraction of a vast and complex spirit.