When the Beechcraft Bonanza carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed outside Clear Lake, Iowa, in the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, it struck the ground with such force that all three passengers were killed instantly, and the plane’s wreckage was strewn across nearly 300 yards of snow-covered cornfields. The death certificate issued by the Cerro Gordo County Coroner noted the clothing Holly was wearing, the presence of a leather suitcase near his body and the following personal effects:
Cash $193.00 less $11.65 coroner’s fees – $181.35
2 Cuff links, silver 1/2 in. balls having jeweled band
Top portion of ball point pen
Notably missing from the list were Holly’s signature eyeglasses, the most distinctive visual legacy of a man who influenced the sound and style of rock and roll immeasurably. Those famous glasses were presumed lost forever until the announcement on February 29, 1980, that they had resurfaced in Mason City, Iowa.
The glasses in question had the appearance of something government issued, but they were, in fact, carefully chosen as part of Holly’s image—not by Holly himself, but by his Lubbock, Texas, optometrist, Dr. J. Davis Armistead. “Buddy was trying to wear the least conspicuous frames he could find,” wrote Dr. Armistead nearly 40 years after writing Holly’s last prescription. “Personally, I was not happy with the frame styles we had been using. I did not think they contributed anything to a distinct personality that a performer needs.” It was while on vacation in Mexico City that Armistead found exactly the frames that he felt Holly needed. He brought back two pair of the heavy plastic Faiosa frames. “Those heavy black frames achieve exactly what we wanted—they became a distinct part of him.” In fact, they became a part of the basic iconography and spirit of rock and roll. Before Buddy Holly, it would have been impossible to imagine a skinny, knock-kneed kid in an Ivy League suit and thick, heavy glasses being considered “cool.” After Buddy Holly, the look and attitude that would later be called “geek chic” became a completely accepted alternative style for an aspiring rock star to embrace.
So how did the famous glasses re-emerge? In the violence of the crash back in February 1959, they were thrown clear of the other wreckage and buried in snow. They were found, along with the Big Bopper’s watch, that same spring, when the melting snow made them visible again. Though they were handed in immediately to the Cerro Gordo County Sherriff’s office, they sat filed away for the next 21 years in a sealed manila envelope marked “rec’d April 7, 1959.” That envelope was opened by Sheriff Jerry Allen on this day in 1980. The glasses were eventually returned to Holly’s widow.