Head Start: Astronaut's Widow Stirs Hope

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Shalama Jackson STAFF WRITER

Just like the astronaut they learned about Thursday, their imaginations soared.

They stood on a New York City rooftop overlooking the George Washington Bridge. They visited an area where people are turned into animals with the touch of a magical hat. And they transcended time into the Harlem Renaissance as Cheryl McNair, widow of Dr. Ronald McNair, read to Lake City Head Start children at the local library.

A Lake City native, Ronald McNair, held the rare distinction of becoming an astronaut, but was killed along with six others when the shuttle Challenger exploded. Saturday is the 20th anniversary of that tragedy.

While reading “the Magic Hat” by Mem Fox, the children’s arms moving to and fro, the class repeated: “It moved like this, it moved like that! It spun through the air and sat on the head of” people who were transformed into a baboon, a toad and giraffe.

“For me, it helps me and my family,” Cheryl McNair said of appearances she makes across nation to share her husband’s legacy. “Part of his life is continuing by sharing his dream to inspire and motivate youth.”

Standing in the foyer of the library, retired librarian Carolyn Sims said this week is part of the history of the community.

“The community of Lake City should be proud,” she said. “There are so many things that African –Americans do that go unnoticed. We want our children to learn about those people that are famous and those that are here walking around them.”

Sharing her husband’s love of reading and education, McNair read to two different groups of students before talking about his life.

“It was about your age that he was learning how to read, and teachers noticed he was eager to learn,” she said. Sitting on a chair in front of the students, , McNair then opened a book based on her husband’s life, “Ronald McNair: Astronaut” by Corinne Naden. She showed various pictures, which included his childhood, him working as a scientist in California, as an astronaut, and of them together with their son, Reggie.

After his first space mission on the Challenger in 1984, McNair was excited about his journey as a mission specialist, she said.

He visited schools talking about his trip into space, “beyond the blue you can see.”

Just like the students sitting in front of her, Ronald McNair began his life in Lake City.

Although he grew up during segregation, he did not let it stand in his way, she said.

“He believed that whatever you do, do it to the very best of your ability. I think his message today would be to reach your goals, think of whatever you want to do, work with excellence, star determined and love by helping each other.”

Music was also a part of her husband’s life, McNair said. He played the saxophone, which he took with him during his first mission.

He played three songs as a part of a montage: “America the Beautiful,” “What the World Needs Now” and “Reach out and Touch Someone’s Hand.”

Hand in hand, Cheryl McNair led the classes in the last song.

“Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place if you can. Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place if you can.”

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