1919 : World War I Airman Francis I. Lankey Dies

May 1, 2023 all-day

Photo of Francis Lankey courtesy of MSU Archives

Part of World War I airman Francis I. Lankey’s legacy was the creation of the fight song for Michigan State University.

Lankey was born in Bay City in 1896, the only child of Bertha and Willis Lankey, who resided on State Street. Before World War I, he entered Michigan Agricultural College, the forerunner to Michigan State University, and was a member of the MAC College of Engineering class of 1916. The blue-eyed young man became the “yellmaster,” or head cheerleader for the “Aggies” football team. He also was an accomplished musician, playing ragtime piano at various places around Lansing.

“He knew there was no fight song to be played at the football games,” Higgs said, adding that he wanted something to compare to Michigan’s “Hail to the Victors” or “On Wisconsin.”

So, Lankey wrote one — the same fight song played today and is so familiar to everyone who ever attended MSU or who has heard the MSU Marching Band.

“Go right through for MSU,” the familiar chant today originally stated “Smash right through that line of blue” (meaning the U of M Wolverines). He wrote the song so the opponent’s name would be inserted and a few lines adjusted to accommodate the undesirable aspects of the visiting team.

When America entered World War I, Lankey registered for the draft and at the age of 21 began training as an Army pilot. Since he had an engineering degree and had worked in Lansing for the state of Michigan as an engineer for a year, he was a top candidate as a combat pilot.

Commissioned 1st lieutenant, Lankey learned to fly the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and was assigned to Carlstrom Field in Florida where he flew his plane in the flying circus, an Army Air Corps demonstration team, raising funds in air shows for the Victory Loan program to help repay the wartime debt.

On May 1, 1919, his plane, which featured red-white-blue tail design, had a damaged propeller and a new one replaced it. Lankey took the plane up to test it and witnesses on the ground said they saw the plane burst into flames and drop to the ground. Lankey died in the wreckage from extensive burns, according to medical personnel.

Although his career in the Army Air Corps might not have been stellar, he should be remembered by all True Spartans!

Robert Bao, “The MSU Songs: Smashing Right Through the Myths”, MSU Alumni Association, August 26, 2013.

Tim Younkman, “Bay City World War I veteran’s legacy is MSU fight song”, Bay City Times, November 11, 2011.

Spartan Marching Band History, MSU Fight Song.

Sing Along with the MSU Marching Band.

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