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Author Homer Hickam tells story of science success after hardscrabble youth at Adams City

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By Ben Wiebesiek

COMMERCE CITY — As part of Adams 14’s ongoing inspiration speaker series, Adams City High School welcomed author Homer Hickam, Jr., to talk about personal quest to join NASA.
    School board President Robert Vashaw introduced Hickam, describing the author’s childhood in Coalwood, West Virginia, where the coal mine was the primary employer of the town.
    “Most of you know that Homer Hickam wrote the New York Times Bestseller memoir,  ‘Rocket Boys’, which was made into the film, ‘October Sky,’” Vashaw said. “I know you have seen this incredible movie.”
    Hickam is the author of 17 books, all best sellers. His latest books are a crossover young adult trilogy set 120 years in the future.

    “Homer Hickam has been a writer since the third grade, when his teacher read one of his short stories and told him, ‘Someday, sonny, you’ll make a living as a writer.’ It turned out she was absolutely correct,” Vashaw said. “After a tour of duty in Vietnam in the 4th Infantry Division, Homer decided to approach his life as if it were an adventure.”
    Hickam spoke twice that day, and he began his evening presentation with praise for the Adams City High School audience from earlier in the day.
    “They were wonderful,” Hickam said. “I have given talks in schools before. I’ve never run across a group quite as enthusiastic as the same time as polite and just downright nice as the students I came across today.”
    Hickam said he was surprised at the success of “Rocket Boys.”
    “Rocket Boys came to me when I was 55 years old. I was an established NASA engineer. I had worked on the Hubble Space Telescope,” Hickam said.
    His idea was simple: a memoir of his childhood pursuit of rocket science knowhow through a series of home made rocket launches.
    “Coalwood was a pure company town,” Hickam said. “There were a lot of towns back in the 40s and 50s that were pure company towns. That meant that the company that made something, or mined something, or owned the town.”
    In Coalwood during Hickam’s youth, the company that owned the local coal mine also owned “every house, every store, every tree, every event,” Hickam said.
    “It owned every adult male. If you lived in Coalwood, you had to work in the coal mine,” Hickam said. “Every adult female in Coalwood, you had to be married to a miner.”
    Even the church was owned by the coal mine, he said.
    “The coal company had the preacher on a three-year contract. That meant that every three years we changed religion,” Hickam said.
    Hickam remembers feeling that his life was bound to the same destiny as all of his peers: a lifetime working in the coal mines.
    But the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 ignited a sudden passion in Hickam to build and launch bigger and more elaborate rockets.
    His early experiments earned science fair prizes, but Hickam’s father was clear about his disapproval of this departure from Coalwood destiny.
    Hickam pursued his dream to work at NASA despite his father’s opposition. And his quest for adventure didn’t stop there. He’s been a scuba instructor, and a dinosaur bone collector.
    Hickam drew an analogy between his childhood pursuing a love for science to the childhoods of children in economically disadvantaged cities across the country.
    Ultimately, he said he owed his success to those that supported him, who at first was just his own mother.
    His mother gave him the approval as a child to begin his scholarly pursuit with one simple rule: “Well, son, just don’t blow yourself up.”
    Hickam said it was this support that made his dream possible.

Contact Ben Wiebesiek at 303-659-2522, ext. 205, or email bwiebesiek@metrowestnewspapers.com.