By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
---- — There are many famous and successful people who have called Clinton home. We need to celebrate their lives as well as all of their contributions.
Recently, former astronaut Dale Gardner, 65, died. He and two other astronauts have connections with Clinton. Gardner was honored this month in Time Magazine with a special obituary. He died in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Feb. 19 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Capt. Gardner’s parents were Bill and Alice Gardner. Bill was a well-known civic leader in Clinton. The family moved to Savanna, Ill., in 1961 with Interstate Power Co. Dale graduated from high school there, and then the family moved to Clinton in 1968.
Gardner also was mentioned on a NBC news broadcast with Brian Williams recently, in relation to the movie “Gravity,” and Williams inserted the astronaut’s life in comparison with the theme of the movie. The 1984 shuttle mission salvaged two satellites that were stuck in the wrong orbits and brought them back to Earth.
After Gardner helped retrieve one of them, a Western Union communications satellite, he posed for a photo outside the shuttle with a “for sale” sign. According to his mother, Alice, who lives in Clinton, “Dale was the first to go outside of a space vehicle untethered, using a powered backpack.”
Dale Gardner spent two summers working in Clinton during his college years at the University of Illinois. He was an American hero and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, from which he retired in 2012.
Gardner flew two shuttle missions, in 1983 and 1984. He logged 337 hours in space and 225 Earth orbits, and he went on two spacewalks totaling 12 hours. The 1983 mission, in the Challenger, was the first night launch and first night re-entry for the shuttle program. Delays in resuming the shuttle program (after Challenger was destroyed by a booster-rocket explosion in 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard) caused an ebb in activities that led Capt. Gardner to return to the regular Navy, where he continued to excel.
Dale was just one of many Clinton citizens who went out into the world and “made a name for themselves.” We had two other astronauts as well as famous people like Artemus Gates, who was assistant secretary of the Navy in WWII and a leading bank president; Marquis Childs, a Pulitzer Prize winner; Lillian Russell, our most famous native who was an entertainer and later became an ambassador; Fred “Duke” Slater, a famous athlete and later judge; W.H.D. Koerner, a world-renown artist/ illustrator; Frank “Felix” Adler, the world-beloved circus clown; Charles Toney, a John Deere executive and civil rights activist; Joan Wagner Beck, feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, etc. We need to remember and honor these individuals who provide excellent examples of what can be accomplished by people from a small community.
George “Pinky” Nelson was born to former teachers of Clinton High School, George and Tess Nelson. In 2009, Nelson, 63, was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame. He was a graduate of the University of Washington and is an educator/astronomer. Nelson performed astronomical research at the Sacramento Peak Solar Observatory and worldwide.
His current research is in systemic education reform and in the preparation of science teachers. A veteran of three space flights, Nelson has logged a total of 411 hours in space.
Col. David Hilmers, 64, of DeWitt, graduated from Central Community High School in DeWitt in 1968; received a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics (Summa Cum Laude) from Cornell College in 1972, then a master of science degree in electrical engineering. A veteran of four space flights, Hilmers has logged more than 493 hours in space. He retired from NASA and the United States Marine Corps in October 1992. He received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the Baylor College of Medicine in 1995 and a master of science degree in public health from the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center in 2002. In addition to his teaching and clinical duties, he is involved in research in global health and malnutrition.
You may remember Capt. Hilmer’s father, Paul, a Clinton County assessor who later served many years as a volunteer at the Clinton County Courthouse greeting and helping visitors find the appropriate office.
Just imagine the possibilities that are open to all of our young men and women. These were all people with talent, ambition and an adventuresome spirit — desirous of going out into the world to accomplish important things. What makes these achievers different from those of us who are “stay at home folks” — who are content with much quieter and less noteworthy lives?
• Next time — Another military hero will soon be honored. Lt. Louis Longman lived in Clinton in the 1930s. He was a pilot who crashed in the jungle in the Pacific Theater of War in WWII, and his body and plane have recently been discovered. He will be buried at the Rock Island Arsenal Cemetery in April.
• Sources — Time magazine, Clinton Herald, Mike Kearney, Dick Herrity and Alice Gardner.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His columns appear on Fridays.