Grace Corrigan, Christa McAuliffe’s mom, lived up to her name

  • Grace Corrigan, the late mother of teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe, stands with a mural honoring her daughter on Jan. 24, 1996, in Boston. AP file

  • Ed and Grace Corrigan, parents of Christa McAuliffe, meet with reporters at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Friday, Jan. 24, 1986. McAuliffe is part of the crew for Sunday?s scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. (AP Photo/Paul Kizzle) Paul Kizzle

  • The family of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was America's first civilian astronaut, react shortly after the liftoff of the Space Shuttle Challanger at the Kennedy Space Center, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986. Shown are Christa's sister, Betsy, front, and parents Grace and Ed Corrigan. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) JIM COLE

  • Grace Corrigan, center right, mother of Christa McAuliffe, and Pam Peterson, right, west regional director for the Challenger Center of Space Science Education, unveil a mural about the life of McAuliffe during ceremonies at Framingham State College in Framingham, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 28, 2001. The unveiling was part a commemoration held at the school on the 15th anniversary of McAuliffe's death in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) STEVEN SENNE

  • Grace Corrigan, left, mother of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, looks at a Challenger memorial quilt made by Teena Still, right, of Baytown, Texas Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006, at Framingham, Mass. State College, McAuliffe's alma mater. Jan. 28 is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, in which McAuliffe and six other astronauts died. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) ELISE AMENDOLA

  • Grace Corrigan (second from left), mother of the late Christa McAuliffe, stands with the New Hampshire recipients of the Christa McAuliffe fellowships at the Legislative Office Building in Concord in 1990. DAN HABIB / Monitor file

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/13/2018 5:57:15 PM

Jeanne Gerulskis, director at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, says Christa McAuliffe’s mother was aptly named.

“The name Grace really suited her,” Gerulskis said Tuesday. “She was lovely, full of grace.”

Grace Corrigan, who died last week at the age of 94, made Framingham, Mass., Christa’s hometown growing up, a city synonymous with learning, curiosity and the urge to go where few people had gone before.

Just like Christa did here, as a social studies teacher at Concord High School and the first private citizen selected to partake in a space mission.

Grace forever became a snapshot in the city’s history on Jan. 28, 1986. She and we watched the launch of the space shuttle Challenger – Christa’s family and students from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the rest of us on TV – and when the shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff, our first instinct was to believe that the white smoke and erratic-flying rockets were simply part of the show.

At least that’s what we hoped.

The TV cameras got a tight shot of Grace and her husband, Edward, squinting skyward, wonder, hope, fear, all mixed into their faces.

Then we heard the words, “Obviously a major malfunction” over the loudspeaker, words now seared into our memories. Christa’s parents never publicly pointed fingers, but their refusal to label the incident an “accident” spoke volumes about their anger toward NASA and its decision to launch on a cold morning.

Then came the second part of this story. The inspiring part. The story about a mother rising up and carrying her daughter’s torch, basically until the day she died, on Nov. 8. The story about the woman who went back to college and earned her teaching degree after her children had grown up and left the house. The story about the public speaker, traveling the country to stress the importance of well-funded school systems.

The story about Grace.

“She said Christa would have been delighted to see what we had done to memorialize her,” Gerulskis told me. “She was impressed. She would come to events and she wanted so much to share what her daughter would have shared if Christa had survived that trip. (Grace) could communicate with the smallest children and the older people, in their 80s and 90s, as well.”

Gerulskis’s relationship with Grace dates back 20 years. A woman with a sense of adventure herself, Gerulskis came to Concord from Alaska, where she had worked as the senior curator of exhibits for Native American cultural history.

She first met Grace in May of 1999, when the United States Postal Service unveiled a series of framed stamps honoring Christa and presented them to the space center here.

Gerulskis – remembering news accounts showing the never-ending bounce and optimism of the teacher who had beaten out 10,000 applicants for the right to board the shuttle – was struck immediately by this petite woman with the giant presence.

“I was really excited to meet her and I could tell right away where Christa got that spark from,” Gerulskis said. “Those deep brown eyes, and she was teensy, a very small woman with an incredibly warm, delightful personality.

“And then she came up for other events.”

She did indeed. In fact, Grace became a semi-regular here. Gerulskis remembered when the idea surfaced to change the planetarium, named after Christa and Christa alone, to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.

Gerulskis wondered what Grace would think about the change. She knew Grace was scheduled to be here for a separate event. So she wrote her a note, asking for her thoughts.

“I believed she might think that we were diminishing Christa’s role,” Gerulskis told me. “She had a place named for her daughter and then we were going to split the attention and dedicate it to another person as well. I wanted to make sure she felt okay about that.”

Grace read the note. “She called me right away,” Gerulskis said.

Turns out Shepard, a Derry native and the first American in space, was one of Christa’s heroes. Turns out he inspired Christa to challenge herself by accompanying six astronauts on the Challenger, where she was scheduled to conduct a class and keep a journal.

Turns out Grace was delighted.

“(Christa) saw Alan as the real hero,” Gerulskis said. “She would tell her mom, ‘I am not the hero, Alan is. He went into space having no idea how his body would react to space.’ The fact that he went into space as a New Englander had a big impact on her.”

Grace came here to break ground on the new project, located on the campus of New Hampshire Technical Institute. She sat with Shepard’s three daughters during the ceremony. She donated Christa’s sheet music, from the days her daughter played piano as a little girl. She donated her Girl Scout pins, too.

Those items remain, donated by a woman whose life was as challenging as space flight. She lost her parents as a kid, lost her daughter 32 years ago and lost her husband 28 years ago.

Gerulskis read the news a few days ago in the Boston Globe, while visiting her sisters in Massachusetts. She said Grace’s strong presence came to mind, that spark she talked about that reminded her of Christa.

“You could see that twinkling in her brown eyes,” Gerulskis said. “I know she was old, but I just felt sad. I’m so glad I got time to spend with her.”

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