Sometime in our lives, each of us encounters a brush with history. It might be seeing a president or being near an important event. Hopefully, the moment is filled with smiles or laughter, or even the quiet appreciation of time and place.
Other times, our moment is such that we would prefer that history turn the page without us — and keep tragedy and sorrow to itself.
Jan. 28, 1986, is such a moment for me and another member of our community. That’s the day the Space Shuttle Challenger and crew commanded by former Auburn resident Dick Scobee perished 73 seconds after takeoff.
I was the mayor of Auburn then, working in my office on something that seemed important at the time, but has since faded from my memory. My executive assistant came in and said the radio just announced that the Challenger had crashed. In the movies at times like this, you see reality suddenly being replaced by slow motion and flashbacks for effect. I didn’t used to believe in that, but those moments are real. They happen.
Today’s instant media wasn’t instant then, and while waiting for updates, my mind hearkened back a few months to Scobee’s visit to Auburn. Challenger was Scobee’s second flight into space. He had been on orbital flight 41-c earlier. He had returned for a visit to his hometown as the triumphant hero, and had been welcomed with all the honor and pageantry we could give to a local boy. We basked in the glow of national prominence, not earned but gained by the simple good fortune of his birth.
We organized a parade through streets lined with well wishers, and he was honored at an assembly at Auburn High School, his alma mater. I gave him the Key to the City and we spent most of the day together. He was thoughtful, soft spoken and seemed slightly uneasy with all the attention.
As we waited on stage for our turn to speak, he leaned over and asked, “How do you do this all the time, speaking in public?”
“It goes with the job,” I said. I also noticed he was perspiring through his suit coat. He had gone into space, and faced issues so difficult that most of us would be to terrified to even contemplate, and yet he was nervous about public speaking. He deflected credit for the mission’s success to others and was humbled by the attention.
After he left, and despite a training schedule that had to leave scant free time, he called a couple of times just to say “hi.” He would ask how things were going and bring me up to date on the flight planning. It tells you something of the quality of the man.
The last time we spoke, he invited me to come to Florida to attend the Challenger’s takeoff. He wasn’t comfortable with public speaking, but he would fly into space with trained confidence without a second thought. Conversely, I was at ease speaking before groups, but I didn’t like getting on airplanes very much. We had all become so casual about spaceflight that a school teacher was aboard the shuttle. Certainly, I would have a future opportunity and would then be able to muster up my courage enough to face a flight to Florida. I declined.
The next few months after the tragedy were blurry with media attention. North Auburn Elementary was renamed Dick Scobee Elementary School, and we added his name to Auburn Municipal Airport. His family was at these ceremonies. Though they shared their loss in a public manner most of us couldn’t begin to comprehend, they did it with grace and dignity. A friend of mine at Key Bank in Federal Way pointed out Dick’s brother, Jim, not too long ago. It had been many years since I had seen him, and it was good to catch up with the progress of the Scobee family.
Reporters usually call in January to ask for my recollections of the events from so many years ago. In 2003, when the we lost the crew of the Columbia, I couldn’t watch the television coverage. Although I did answer reporters’ inquires, the sadness of those memories had not diminished despite the years.
The media didn’t call this year, and for that I was relieved. Was Dick Scobee a hero? Yes, of course he was. He was part of our dreams of extending our reach for the stars and the unknown. But other heroes walk among us every day and we learn from them as well.
The Scobee family, his children and his brother, Jim — they taught us how to wear integrity, humility and dignity in a time of tragedy and how it should be reflected. They lived history. I was only brushed by it. But we all share a wish we hadn’t been.