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Astronaut Shepard built a boat

Last modified: 10/4/2015 10:57:10 PM
Alan Shepard is best known as the first American in space.

He was the fifth person ever to walk on the moon and even hit a couple golf balls while he was up there. It’s no wonder why the McAuliffe-
Shepard Discovery Center is named after him.

What you may not know is that Shepard grew up in East Derry and attended Pinkerton Academy. So he’s kind of a big deal in New Hampshire, a claim to fame.

The Discovery Center displays a lot of historical artifacts pertaining to Shepard’s career in the Navy and as an astronaut, but when director Jeanne Gerulskis got a call back in May about a piece from Shepard’s past it wasn’t something she expected.

Apparently when Shepard was 16 years old, he took a summer boat-building workshop at Proctor Academy. And a woman by the name of Joan Hart, who was living in Cohasset, Mass., said she had purchased the boat at an auction in the 1980s and wanted to donate it to the center.

“She called and asked if we’d like to have it,” Gerulskis said. “And you can’t turn something like that down.”

Usually when someone calls wanting to donate memorabilia, it’s some old newspaper article, not a hand-crafted row boat by the center’s namesake.

“I’m thinking, ‘Do we have a boat built by some random person?,’ ” Gerulskis said. “But every once in a while something really cool comes in.”

While it seemed like a great addition to the collection, Gerulskis wasn’t sure what it looked like, what kind of shape it was in and if Shepard actually built it.

Hart had a letter from Shepard dated Feb. 16, 1984, that confirmed he indeed built a boat at Proctor Academy as a teenager in the 1930s, but he had “no clue” if the boat she had was the one he actually built. His mother had donated it back to the school in the 1960s, and he wasn’t sure what came of it.

But Hart also had a letter from a longtime Proctor employee and archivist, written in 2013, which stated the Hart family had purchased the boat at an auction. It really was the one built all that time ago by Shepard.

“She could have sold it and made a lot of money, but she cared about the history,” Gerulskis said.

So it was picked up and brought back to New Hampshire, where it is now the star attraction for a new exhibit, “Riding the Waves of History,” which opened in mid-September.

“To be able to touch a boat that the first American in space, from New Hampshire, built when he was 16 years old, is pretty cool,” Gerulskis said.

Visitors to the Discovery Center can get an up-close look at the one-of-a-kind piece of history that dates back over three-quarters of a century. It is currently housed in the former gift shop area with pictures of Shepard during his two space flights and one of his famous golf shot on the moon. The exhibit also features images and artifacts from John Cooperider’s 20-year career with the U.S. Navy as an administrative assistant to four consecutive secretaries of the U.S. Navy, as well as autographed flight documents from six of the original Mercury 7 astronauts – including Shepard.

For being about 80 years old, the boat is in good condition. It has a white exterior, stained wood around the edges, and a gray interior (that could use a fresh coat).

“It was taking a risk ’cause we had no idea what it would look like,” Gerulskis said.

Volunteers built a boat cradle for it because they don’t want people sitting in it – it is really old after all. But touching the piece of history is certainly fine, as long as it’s done in a respectful manner.

“We had to get it up off the floor so people didn’t jump in,” Gerulskis said. “We don’t know how much the floor of the boat can take.”

The Discovery Center is open Friday through Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and will be open Columbus Day and Veterans Day.


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