By Gray Bostick
Obstacles, to the truly committed, the truly confident, or the truly blessed, are simply opportunities; challenges, just special chances for them to shine.
And they prove it. Over and over again.
One day, back in the summer of 1959, a curious young man desperately seeking knowledge about science and math decided to visit the Lake City, SC library, perhaps unaware that the color of his skin represented a far wider social chasm than the gaps in his mental database. With the librarian sternly watching, he proceeded to walk the row after row of books until he found two that addressed his curiosity—reportedly one about advanced science and another about calculus—and took them to the check-out counter.
It was there and then that he was told by the librarian that he was not allowed to check books out of the library. The young man did not understand—nor did he back down, instead taking a seat atop the library counter while the librarian called his mother, and the police, so that he could be escorted from the library and taken home. The police soon arrived, but refused to arrest the young man, and his mother, upon hearing the librarian’s story, refused to take her son home and, after a bit of discussion, the young man was allowed to check out his selected books.
Today, that very building is named after that young man, who grew up to become NASA astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair, who was lost along with six others when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just after liftoff on January 28, 1986, and is the home of the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center, housing artifacts, relics, and other items related to McNair’s life, as well as a classroom setting to aid in educating visitors.
And what a life it was. Born the second of three sons to Pearl and Columbus McNair in Lake City on October 21, 1950, Ronald McNair grew up battling segregation in the the South in the turbulent 60’s, yet never wavered and was a valedictorian graduate of Carver High School; received a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Physics—magna cum laude, no less—from North Carolina A&T State University, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from North Carolina A&T State University, an honorary Doctorate of Science from Morris College, and an honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of South Carolina. McNair also received nearly two dozen fellowships, and was a renowned expert in the field of laser physics.
McNair was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in January of 1978 and flew his first mission aboard the space shuttle on Flight STS-41-B in February, 1984. The Challenger flight was to be his second into space.
That tragic flight, and McNair’s memory, are commemorated in a most touching and fitting manner by the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park that is in front of the Life History Center. The result of planning that began back in 1989, the Memorial Park features a monument to the flight with a Scroll of Honor, fronted by a bronze statue of Dr. McNair; a mausoleum and mastaba—surrounded by water and fountains, with engraved quotes from McNair, along with an eternal flame—were added in 2004 when his remains were relocated from their original burial site five miles west of Lake City. A 5K run and celebration are held the Saturday before McNair’s October birthday to observe his memory.
But that is about the past, and, according to Clyde Bess, who as a schoolmate of McNair knew him well, McNair was always looking ahead, rarely content to rest on the laurels or achievements of yesterday or yesteryear.
“He was a doer, a real go-getter, always ready for the next challenge” Bess notes about McNair, who excelled at nearly every activity that drew his interest: academics, sports, or music, becoming a 6th-degree black belt in taekwondo, and also an accomplished clarinetist and saxophone player. Bess adds that McNair wanted to play the sax in school—but the school didn’t have one, so McNair took up the clarinet instead—and became proficient at that instrument until a saxophone became available. “Nothing seemed to slow Ron down,” Bess says with a smile, shaking his head.
Bess, who serves as the unofficial curator of the Center, knows that its primary goal is one that McNair would embrace: expanding the horizons of youth. “We have school groups and vacation bible study classes and field trips and that type thing, and I encourage more teachers to get in touch with us and bring their kids over,” Bess said noting that a group, the ‘Freedom Readers’ from Georgetown, was due to visit soon. “Ron proved that the sky is still not the limit. So that’s our goal, to get kids thinking, to stir their imaginations.”
“Our regular hours are a little limited, but we can be here any day, at any hour, for however long we need. Call anytime,” Bess says, adding that it’s always best to call ahead to prearrange tours or visits for large groups, or to set up special age-specific programs. “We’re proud to carry forward with Ron’s mission.”