Founders Day: Homer Hickam Touts Conviction and Community

Mar 19, 2014

by Cary McMullen | Publications editor
Aeronautical engineer and author Homer Hickam, Jr., told a Founders Day Convocation audience that convictions and community can overcome fear. He was the guest speaker at the March 14 Convocation, which marked the College’s 129th year.

The Convocation also included the presentations of the Distinguished Alumni Awards to four Florida Southern alumni and the Ben and Janice Wade Outstanding Teaching Award, and the naming of an FSC senior to the Honor Walk.

A last-minute substitute as guest speaker for Ted Turner, who was recuperating from an unexpected illness, Hickam is the author of Rocket Boys, his memoir about how his boyhood interest in rocketry enabled him to leave the coal fields of West Virginia and go on to become an engineer with the U.S. Army and NASA. At NASA, he trained crews for Spacelab and Space Shuttle missions, including the deployment and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and at the time of his retirement he was the Payload Training Manager for the International Space Station.

Hickam related how as a boy he was not particularly interested in life outside his coal-mining community until the launch of the first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union piqued his imagination. He and some friends, with the encouragement of family and teachers, set out to build a rocket.

“Ultimately we succeeded. Our last rocket went six miles high. But along the way we learned not just how to build a rocket. We learned about all sorts of other things,” he said.

One of the things he learned, Hickam said, was how the values of a community can transcend the circumstances of life.

“I’m an optimistic soul, but sometimes things happen that make us scared. I was always interested in people who should have been afraid but weren’t. As a boy, every day I saw coal miners go off to work at a terribly dangerous job, and their families didn’t know if they would ever see them again. Why weren’t they afraid?” he said.

Hickam said the conviction that they were doing something important was a safeguard against fear, as was the way families relied upon one another.

“Be proud of who you are, and stand up for what you believe. Keep your family together. Ultimately, put your trust in God and rely on yourselves,” he said.

The Distinguished Alumni Awards recognize exceptional professional achievement, civic leadership, and a commitment to the highest ethical standards. This year the awards were given to:

  • Richard C. Jensen ’59, owner and vice president of Michael Riesz and Company, a construction firm in Fords, N.J., which specializes in institutional, commercial, and educational building projects.
  • Anne ’66 and Charles ’65 Reynolds of Lake Placid. Mr. Reynolds is owner of Reynolds Farms, which has interests in citrus farming, ranching, and other enterprises. Mrs. Reynolds is an educator, artist, and community leader who has overseen the preservation of Native American archeological sites on Reynolds family property. It is the first time the Distinguished Alumni Award has been given to a couple.
  • David E. Rogers ’82, a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLC in Washington, D.C. He is in charge of the firm’s Employee Benefits, Compensation, Labor and Employment Group.

The Ben and Janice Wade Outstanding Teaching Award recognizes outstanding performance by a teaching faculty member. This year it was given to Dr. Catherine Eskin, associate professor of English. In presenting the award, FSC Provost Kyle Fedler said students have commented that Eskin challenges her students and helps them find their own writing style. Fedler also noted that Eskin has overseen a service learning project that has documented the history of Lakeland’s Jewish community.

Each year an FSC senior who exemplifies the College’s ideals of academic excellence and outstanding character is named to the Honor Walk, the College’s highest student award. The 2014 Honor Walk selection is Katherine Luecht, a psychology and interpersonal and organizational communication major from Crystal Lake, Ill., who carries a 4.0 GPA. She is president of the FSC Circle of Omicron Delta Kappa; vice president of Psi Chi, the international honor society in psychology; and vice president of Lambda Pi Eta, the communication studies honor society. A stone engraved with her name will be placed on the border of Mr. George’s Green alongside those of others dating back to 1887.

“I am certain she will continue to distinguish herself and Florida Southern in her graduate studies and throughout her career,” said FSC President Anne Kerr, as she made the presentation.