We do not believe we have ever talked to anyone who has as a goal to leave rural America to retire and live in a townhome in a major city like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. For logical reasons the chance to live in a crowded, high-cost, high-crime environment is not a goal of many. The flow of retirees is almost always in the opposite direction. Most cannot wait to set aside the stress of big city life and move toward a more balanced environment where quality of life, and not quantity of life, is the primary objective.
One such person we encountered along life’s highway was a softspoken, gentle, easy-going gentleman who lived down the dirt road from our house. We would see him from time-to-time taking a leisurely stroll up the road and then back to the house he had built. By the time we had met he had put his career behind him and had returned to his roots. While he was away having a career, the house had been damaged in a fire and he took it upon himself to set it back right. According to his wife, he did most of the work himself and only had a helper when things were just too heavy or too big for one person to handle. After all, he was an engineer by trade and had the knowledge and skills needed to build the house.
Occasionally we would sit and talk to his wife and rarely did our conversation vary from yard work or flowers. But one day she casually mentioned that she wished she had written down all Richard had done at NASA. The statement caught us off guard, but we figured that if she wanted to, she would elaborate at some point in the future. But Richard developed some variation of dementia, and that day never came. His walks up and down the dirt road were less frequent, but he fought the disease for fifteen years.
Even in his later years Richard remained soft-spoken and it was a pleasure to be around him. Some with dementia become difficult to contend with, but this never seemed to happen in his case. He was always pleasant and nice to be around. On one occasion we did ask “Richard, we heard you worked at NASA.” He smiled and replied “Yes,” but that was the extent of his memory of those events and days.
When Richard passed away recently, we finally learned his full story, and what a story it was. He had been born in Iowa but lived with and made a home with an aunt and uncle in a remote town in North Georgia. He attended a local Baptist college before joining the Marines in 1953 to become a helicopter pilot. In 1957 he finished his duty and returned to attend Georgia Tech in Atlanta. After graduating from college in 1961 with a degree in mechanical engineering he joined a new little outfit called NASA.
Richard found a home at NASA and stayed to enjoy a thirty-three-year career. He climbed in management to the highest levels and along the way happened to be involved in every major program. He worked on the Apollo Project, Sky Lab, Space Habitat, the Space Shuttle, and experiments on the Space Station. He was the chief engineer of the Space Station and recognized by NASA more than once as an exceptional member of their management team.
Returning to rebuild your childhood home might sound like a daunting task for many of us, but for Richard it was something he probably could design on a napkin, or just visualize and do. It was certainly not his biggest project, but perhaps his favorite. It would have been a labor of love, not a technical challenge.
So, when you are traveling across this great Nation and stop in some small town for lunch, or just a little break, pay attention to and engage with the people you meet. We have only spent quality time with one Rocket Scientist along life’s highway, and we met him on a dirt road in a small town in North Georgia. To paraphrase William Cowper, “Our best and brightest often forsake the throng, and seek retirement for its proper use.”