Deep Faith Brings Beauty from Tragedy
When New York Times best-selling author Lee Strobel came to campus to speak at Bethel’s first-ever Give Back Gala on May 12, there was no one more excited to see him than Bethel mom and grandma Mattie Ulrich, of Osceola, Ind. Mattie had been waiting to meet Strobel for nearly 40 years – since 1978, when their lives intersected in a way that would change them both forever.
Aug. 10, 1978, marks the day that two of Mattie and Earl Ulrich’s daughters, Judy, age 18, and Lynn, age 16, along with their cousin Donna Ulrich, age 18, passed away tragically when their Ford Pinto was rear-ended by a van and the gas tank exploded with the girls trapped inside. Only Judy survived the night of the crash – but passed away later at the hospital. As she was being transported to a burn center, the nurse riding in the ambulance discovered she was a Christian and comforted her with the words of Isaiah 43:2: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
This was not the first fiery crash of its type for the Pinto. Evidence suggested the company knew the gas tank was defective, but didn’t change the design, because of cost. As a result of the Ulrich crash, the state of Indiana sued Ford for reckless homicide.
Strobel, then a court reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covered the case, writing a series of articles about documents from the trial. Though the verdict was “not guilty” (Ford argued that any gas tank could explode by being struck in the rear at 50 mph), Strobel went on to write his first book, “Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial,” which details the historic first criminal trial brought against a manufacturer, and called for a higher level of corporate responsibility.
Though Strobel was an atheist at the time, the Ulrich’s were praying for him and all of the reporters throughout the case. They didn’t want the trial – they knew it wouldn’t bring their daughters back and would, in fact, bring up painful details surrounding their deaths all over again. But if it could save someone else’s life, then maybe some good could come out of their tragedy, Mattie says.
Looking back, Strobel recalls reporting about Judy being comforted by the words of Isaiah, saying that even though he was not a Christian at the time, it had an emotional impact on him.
“I felt like God was visiting me in that moment,” he says. “It was one of the links in a long chain that led me to faith.”
When “Reckless Homicide?” first came out, the Ulrich’s immediately bought the book. They continued praying for Strobel and followed the dramatic shift in his career when he converted to Christianity through writing “The Case for Christ.” Strobel would go on to write many more books in “The Case for …” series, impacting millions for Christ, and become a teaching pastor at Woodlands Church, where he currently serves.
The Ulrich’s stayed in northern Indiana and used their tragedy to minister to other couples coping with the loss of a child. They even met another couple who lost twins in a Pinto accident.
The Ulrich’s youngest daughter, Sharon (Ulrich) Minnich ’86, who was about 13 at the time of the crash, went on to study at Bethel College. She married Ryan Minnich ‘87, and two of their three daughters, Kimberly (Minnich) Swygert ’15 and Kari Minnich ’19, attended Bethel as well.
So when Strobel came to campus, it was an answer to prayer for the Ulrich/Minnich family – even though Earl, who passed away two years ago, wasn’t able to be there.
Bethel’s alumni office set up a special lunch, where Mattie was able to share with Strobel that she and Earl visited the driver of the van and forgave him, not even a week after the crash happened. This was an astonishing show of grace that Strobel hadn’t heard about before. She also talked about her girls, who she describes as “outspoken about their faith.” Judy, a free spirit, wanted to study interior design and always decorated the house for every holiday. Lynne wanted to be an accountant and loved riding horses.
“We know where they are because they had such a deep faith,” Mattie says.
Strobel shared about how he uses the Pinto case as sermon illustration, detailing the impact that it had on his life.
“As painful as it is, God used it in me coming to faith,” he says.