(March 30, 2018) Between 1957 and 1960 six high school boys in Coalwood, West Virginian acquired the character that would eventually lift them out of poverty. They built rockets and won the Blue Ribbon at the National High School Science Fair in Indianapolis where an anonymous competitor tried to sabotage their entry by stealing and hiding their key exhibit. The boys were named Homer Hickam, Billy Rose, Quentin Wilson, O’Dell Carroll, Roy Lee Cooke, and Sherman Siers.
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Homer was the leader. After high school he earned a Virginia Tech engineering degree, served in the Vietnam War, became a NASA engineer and is presently an author. His best known book is a memoir about the boys’ high school experience titled Rocket Boys. Hollywood made a movie version with the anagram title, October Sky.
As the picture below documents, Homer and his five friends were not economically privileged. Billy Rose’s family may have been the poorest. When their electricity was cut off he studied by the light of a kerosene lamp. But Billy joined the army after high school and later earned an electrical engineering degree. Quentin Wilson became a petroleum engineer, O’Dell Carroll an insurance salesman and Roy Lee Cooke a banker. Even as a boy Sherman Siers was partially crippled with polio but he also grew to become an engineer and a 7-handicap golfer. Unfortunately, he died at age thirty-four of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife and three children.
In a 2003 interview on Oregon Public Television Homer Hickam explained how he believes Coalwood’s small town values molded the boys:
As far as [Coalwood residents] were concerned the family was holy. We keep our families together. That gave us kids a great sense of security . . . no matter how much the parents argued . . . we knew they were going to stay together. I knew only a single boy in Coalwood whose parents were divorced, and he was a periodic visitor who came to see his grandparents.
[Coalwood residents] are proud of who we are. We stand up of what we believe. We trust in God but we rely on ourselves. God we thank for what he’s given us: our brains, our bodies, our country, our parents. But we don’t just fall back on that and say, “Please give us some more.” That’s not what its all about. It’s about taking everything you’ve been given and relying upon yourself to go and do the things you want to do. It’s one to the great values that Coalwood still has to teach us.
Learn more about the Rocket Boys here.