Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mitchell, IN (Republished Director's Notes)

OK, I'm cheating a bit.  This blog entry is actually a repeat of my Director's Notes from the Summer 2011 edition of the Observer newsletter (which you can find electronically in PDF format at: https://engineering.purdue.edu/INSGC/Newsletter_Summer2011).  The truth is, I was so touched and excited by my visit to the only county I know of that is the birthplace of three US astronauts, I wanted to make sure other people saw the story.  So, here we are...

Mitchell, Indiana

“Went ridin’ around this little country town…”
--John Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb,” The Lonesome Jubilee

No, I’m not making any of this up.  It all happened, as though I were trying to create a vignette of life in Indiana on a summer day.  –BC

On Friday morning, July 22, I returned from a conference trip, got in a rental car at the airort, and headed south on Indiana Routes 67 and 37.  It’s a really hot day: just the day before, the temperature hit 100 in Indianapolis, the hottest since August 1988 (about the time “Cherry Bomb” was on the Billboard charts).  The corn is tall, but the ground is dry, and the grass is getting brown and crunchy by the time I get to the county line.  I’m late to the luncheon at the Girls’ Club, but I do manage some good conversation with some of the local organizers and guests of honor.  Some good chicken, carrots, and green beans, too.   The evening event is the Ball, being held in the restaurant of the local state park inn down in the next town.  Before I get to the state park, I spend some time on the quiet main street of town.  An Amish buggy is turning the corner as I park the car and cross the street to look at some of the antique stores.  One woman comes into the store as I am browsing the postcards and porcelain, and asks if I’m here for the Ball…. Yes, they’d heard I was coming, and they’re glad I’m here. 

At the Ball, I’m seated at a delightful table.  I’m next to one of the guests of honor, and conversing with the one local mayor and his wife on my other side.  The other local mayor is a bit distant, until she is done with her obligation for the evening: singing the National Anthem.  After that, she relaxes and chats amiably.  I’m enjoying a great dinner of pork chops, and baked apples, and a bit of beef, and cherry cobbler, talking about civic responsibility and local roots.  After dinner, the one local mayor gets up, thanks people for coming, and introduces his “favorite band,” joking that while his colleague may be the singing mayor, he can dance.  The band checks the tuning, and then starts in on… yes, John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb”. 

This all sounds like it could be anywhere in the Midwest, but it’s not.  It’s Indiana (I even drove through Bloomington, where Mellencamp lives, on Route 37).  But more importantly, it’s Lawrence County, Indiana, home of three NASA astronauts: Ken Bowersox and Charlie Walker of Bedford, and Gus Grissom of Mitchell.  We’re here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 launch.  The weekend program includes discussions with McDonnell Corporation engineers who worked on the Mercury program, remarks by Becky Skillman, the Lt. Governor of Indiana (who is also from Bedford).  The guests of honor at the Liberty Bell 7 Ball?  Gus Grissom’s brothers, sister, and other relatives (two tables of Grissom family in all), and Charlie Walker. 

Mayor and Mrs. Terrell dancing to the Summertime Band.

How does such a small place (county population, 2010 census: 46,134) generate such a legacy?  How does a Space Grant Director end up in such a place?  I asked that very question of the people I met.  Mayor Girgis of Bedford and Mayor Terrell of Mitchell spoke of the energy and enthusiasm that the communities had put into the Liberty Bell 7 celebration.  Astronaut Walker talked about launching rockets with friends who thought it was cool, not stupid.  Other residents talked about how Test Pilot Grissom would return back to Mitchell, and do flyovers in one of his jets during the annual Persimmon Festival.   Lowell Grissom was gracious and friendly, and talked about growing up in a town where it was okay to have bigger dreams than working at the local bus manufacturing plant. 

And how about the woman from the antique store?  Her name is Susan, and she has a flight jacket with mission patches and autographs.  She, like many others in town, knew about “that professor from Purdue, the one with the Space Grant,” and her welcome was warm and enthusiastic.  The experience, and the pace, and the spirit of the town all affected her choice to move back to Lawrence County after being in the Air Force. 

In other words, these small towns could have been like any other, but one of their favorite sons returned for visits, and the town celebrated his accomplishments.  The towns try to move forward, but they don’t forget that they hold a special place in history.  They have an obligation to honor their hero, and make sure others remember him, too. Could I have created that level of enthusiasm, or an excitement and passion for the outcomes of STEM education, in a place that wasn’t already eager to celebrate their role in spaceflight history?  As an outsider, no.  But as a visitor and witness to their dreams and passions, I can tell you that everything I could hope for in terms of public engagement of STEM is there.  In the yard next to Gus Grissom’s boyhood home, there is a sweetgum tree grown from a seed that Charlie Walker took into space.  

Folks gathering under the Shuttle Sweetgum tree.  The Grissom home (currently being restored) is at the right of the photo.

Mayor Girgis and Astronaut Walker discuss the importance of girls pursuing whatever career interests they want to follow.  Last year, some folks in a couple of little towns in Indiana decided to put together a program celebrating the history of US spaceflight.  They brought together Mercury Program engineers, and a couple of astronauts, and put it all together near the memorial that houses the Gemini spacecraft nicknamed “Molly Brown”.  Lt. Governor Skillman responded personally to the invitation, and put it on her calendar –because it’s her hometown, too.  And they’re not done yet.  They’re trying to create an Astronaut Hall of Fame.  They’re restoring the Grissom home.  And they want to know if the Indiana Space Grant would be interested in helping with scholarships and activity support and advice.  

I had whispered to Charlie, “I envy you your hometown.”   Correction.  I admire his hometown, and what he and Ken have been able to share with their town.  I admire Susan, and Mayor Terrell and his assistant Christina Lambton (who placed me with such wonderful dinner companions).  I appreciate the efforts of the head of the German-American Bank and the folks from the Hoosier Hills Credit Union, and the Lawrence County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, and the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Department of Natural Resources (remember, the Liberty 7 Ball and Grissom Memorial were at a state park!) and everyone else.  That experience was one of the best reminders of how lucky I am to be able to work with and talk to such people, and be part of the legacy of space flight in Indiana. 

Indiana Route 37, at the entrance to Lawrence County: “Home of Astronauts Grissom • Walker • Bowersox”

The band didn’t play it Friday night, but the next day as I was driving home, guess what song came on the radio? 

“I was born in a small town…
Educated in a small town…
Used to daydream in that small town,
Another born romantic that’s me.”

-- John Mellencamp, “Small Town,” Scarecrow