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Colleagues remember fateful day

Last modified: 1/28/2011 12:00:00 AM
They gathered yesterday in a quiet room of Concord High School, bringing salads and brownies and mementoes from the year NASA chose one of their own to become the first teacher in space.

Seventeen men and women attended the informal reunion of faculty who were at Concord High in January 1986, when the Challenger shuttle exploded with their colleague, Christa McAuliffe, on board. The teachers greeted one another with hugs and backslaps, proclaiming to each other that "you haven't changed at all."

Gene Connolly, the high school's principal, introduced himself and welcomed them back. Connolly said he remembered where he was, teaching elementary school in Windham, on the day the Challenger launched. He reminded the former teachers that the students walking through Concord High today have no such memories.

"It's interesting to talk to the kids, because obviously none of them were even born," Connolly said, drawing nods and a murmured "wow" from the teachers. But he said the students know of McAuliffe and the mission.

"They wear that legacy with pride," he said.

The faculty were reunited through the efforts of Sue Olson Capano, a retired math teacher who had looked through her 1986 yearbook and realized how long it had been.

As the teachers visited, they spoke of the excitement when McAuliffe was chosen to travel into space, the shock and trauma of the Jan. 28 explosion, and the uncharted months that followed, when they strove to support students before they themselves could heal.

"Even after 25 years, you can still have those same feelings," said Pam Woodward, who taught early childhood education in the vocational program. "You can come right back there to the moment when you realized what actually happened."

When the shuttle took off, the students and faculty were watching from the high school auditorium. Bob Pingree was on the balcony with his film studies class. Yesterday, he recalled realizing what had happened moments before the students, and shouting down at them to be quiet.

It was "one of the great traumatic moments of our lives," Pingree said. "For people of our age, it was the Kennedy assassination and this."

For a long time after, Pingree said, he was angry, angry at NASA for allowing the shuttle to launch. A year after the explosion, he composed a poem about McAuliffe, who famously said: "I touch the future. I teach." In his poem, he wrote that McAuliffe, as a teacher of history, also touched the past.

"She knew the past never goes away from us, and it's not past," Pingree said. "The fact we're here today shows that."

When the teachers spoke of McAuliffe, it was about the ordinary things. Jay Godfrey, a science teacher, recalled feeding progress reports into a finicky machine with McAuliffe, a "delightful woman." Arthur Jackson spoke of the camaraderie on the old building's third floor, where he taught math across the hall from McAuliffe.

"She was just such a kind and caring and wonderful, regular person," Woodward said. "Kids loved her. She was so sincere, excited about teaching and learning."

Woodward said it was easy for young families in Concord to put themselves in the place of the McAuliffes, with their two children.

"That's the one thing we've said over the years, and why Concord has respected their privacy," she said. "They were just another family, like ours."

Woodward had a son in the same third-grade class as McAuliffe's son, and her husband had traveled with the Kimball class to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the launch.

Twenty-five years later, the souvenirs her husband purchased for their daughter are still in a brown paper bag, stashed away in a drawer in their Concord home, she said yesterday.

McAuliffe's selection as the teacher in space brought a world of attention upon Concord High, and the teachers yesterday remarked again and again upon the deluge of media inquiries. On the July day when NASA announced its choice, three television networks sent correspondents in helicopters to land on Memorial Field, said Steve Jones, who directed the vocational center and still works as a teaching assistant in the building construction program.

Months later, after the disaster, the reporters and cameramen lined the streets, said Tom Herbert, who chaired the social studies department.

When a group of students went for a walk two days later, he said, some of them responded to questions in different languages to confuse the reporters.

"They would ask stupid questions, like, 'How do you feel?' " Herbert said.

But the school also received outpourings of sympathy from across the nation and the world. Just days later, the hallways were lined with flowers, the walls with posters, the teachers recalled.

"This school became a museum," said David Royle, who coordinated special education in the vocational programs.

They received a check for $100,000 from the consul general of Japan, donated by people and companies there. They received a truck full of poster board. They received boxes and boxes of Mardi Gras beads.

"I guess there were people who just wanted to give us something," said Olson Capano, who retired from teaching math in 2007.

Time and again, the teachers praised the leadership of their principal, Charles Foley, who was unable to attend the reunion yesterday because of the weather.

When the disaster struck, Foley was "the rock that kept us all together," Royle said.

Capano read a message from Foley, who said he would never forget how the teachers cared for their grieving students.

"You guys were the consummate professionals," he wrote.

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)


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