It's a defining moment. One of those where most of us can tell you exactly where we were when we heard the news. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board.
For me, it's easy to tell you exactly where I was. January 28, 1986, I was a junior at Lake City High School. I lived in the hometown of one of the astronauts killed in the disaster, Lake City's favorite son, Ron McNair.
It's so hard to believe it's been 25 years. I remember walking down the hallway that morning towards the lunchroom, when two of my friends walked by and said, "Did you hear? The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded!" I honestly thought they were kidding. When they assured me they weren't, we went in search of a TV to see what we could find out about it.
We finally found one in a closet off the hallway, plugged it in, and started watching the national news coverage. Over and over again, they showed that straight white cloud, that soon ballooned out, then jutted off in an unnatural angle. At the time, there was hope the astronauts could have, maybe somehow, survived. We soon learned that was not the case. For some at LCHS, the loss of Ron McNair was the loss of a family member. His aunt was a teacher, as was his cousin. We had students there related to him and many more who knew his family well.
They didn't make the official announcement until 6th period. His cousin was my teacher. She had already left to be with family. Our principal, Dr. Lane Floyd, came over the loudspeaker and announced what all of us already knew.
The Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded. There were no survivors.
Dr. Floyd asked for a moment of silence for all those lost, especially Lake City native Dr. Ronald E. McNair.
Not long before the disaster, Ron McNair spoke to our school's students. He'd already flown on a Challenger mission in 1984. He talked about that. He also talked about being a student at Carver High School in Lake City, a segregated school when he graduated in 1967. It was a time when a young African American student didn't have the same opportunities as his white counterparts, but Ron McNair never let that stop him.
The next few days after the disaster, the national media descended on small Lake City. A community memorial service was planned. I was so honored when a singing group I was a part of, the Lake City High School Ensemble, was asked to sing for the service. It was held in the largest auditorium in the city, the Pentacostal Holiness Church. The place was packed. There were news cameras and journalists there from all over. The ensemble sang Amazing Grace. I remember lots of tears from lots of people. That night, CBS Evening News with Dan Rather used our song as the background music on the story they put together. I remember being touched seeing so many people there, many of whom knew him personally, but many of whom did not. All of them were there to support his family, and to remember a man who put little Lake City, South Carolina on the map. A man who proved it didn't matter where you came from, but how you lived your life and how hard you strived to be the very best you could be.
Ron McNair was known for a saying that he told my class when he spoke to us. But these weren't just words for him, they were the example he set through his own life.
"Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them. You're eagles! Stretch your wings and fly to the sky." -- Ron McNair
Thank you Ron McNair. Thank you for showing all of us how to be eagles.