Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Jan. 25, 2011, edition of The State and was the final in a three-day series on the Challenger disaster.
The boy walked to the counter of the Lake City Public Library through a gantlet of stares in 1959.
Ronald E. McNair, then 9, wanted to check out books on advanced science and calculus, but the librarian wouldn’t release them.
“We don’t circulate books to Negroes,” she told him.
Library patrons laughed at McNair’s behavior, and the librarian threatened to call the police — and his mother, Pearl.
McNair didn’t budge.
Instead, he hoisted himself onto the counter, his spindly legs dangling, and waited, because he wasn’t leaving without the books. After two police officers determined that McNair wasn’t causing a public disturbance, and when Pearl said she would pay for the books if McNair didn’t bring them back, the librarian acquiesced.
“Thank you, ma’am,” McNair, prompted by his mother, said before he walked out of the library.
McNair, always a precocious student, would become an astronaut and a hometown hero.
This weekend, his heroism and dedication to learning again will be noted. But so will his death.
On Jan. 28, 1986, McNair was on the space shuttle Challenger, which disintegrated shortly after takeoff, killing him and six other crew members.
McNair was 35.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sun News
His legacy is intact here. The local schools, including Ronald E. McNair Middle, are holding events all week in classrooms, and the Ron McNair Committee, a Lake City-based group, has organized a parade, candlelight vigil and banquet.
But what about outside this city of fewer than 10,000 in Florence County? There are more than 20 schools in the country named for McNair, but do students know the history of the name?
“After a while, it becomes just a name for a building, just like any other building you’ve gone into on various campuses,” said McNair’s older brother, Carl.
“I’m really, really trying to find a way to let all of these people know the legacy that they carry.”
Shortly after McNair’s death, Carl founded the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation, which has raised money for programs that have benefited students and teachers nationwide.
Carl, who is now a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education consultant for the McNair Achievement Program, continues to share his brother’s story.
“I’ve heard Ron came from the right family and stumbled into the situation and became an astronaut,” said Carl, whose family lived in poverty. “They don’t know who he is, but know of his schools.”
Showing their support
A week ago, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a construction crew was putting down sod outside a small building. Inside, the walls were being painted as guests walked over plastic covering newly installed carpet.
The crew was working on a national holiday to catch up for time lost because of snow and rain.
“We normally don’t (work on a holiday), but at the same time, the building is supposed to be done,” Jason Morse, the job superintendent, said about the project, which includes a small amphitheater. “We’re going to make sure it gets done.”
Saturday morning, the building will be introduced as the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. It’s the same building McNair defiantly refused to leave without his library books more than a half-century ago.
“That should give you a little idea of what has happened in terms of support in Lake City,” said Clyde Bess, the Ron McNair Committee’s publicity chairman and a former classmate.
The history center is adjacent to a park named for McNair, which includes a mausoleum and statue.
In 1984, after McNair’s first space flight, Lake City honored him with a parade and banquet, and McNair gave a speech, said T.R. Cooper, the committee chairman.
“He said, ‘The people of Lake City made me what I am and what I will become,’” said Cooper, McNair’s principal at Carver Elementary. “He never came back to Lake City and said, ‘Aha, I made it, and you didn’t help me.’
“No matter who you were, he was able to talk to you. That’s Ron McNair.”
McNair’s widow, Cheryl, applauded the efforts in Lake City.
“It’s just such a wonderful group of people there, and they’re so dedicated,” said Cheryl McNair, who will attend this weekend’s events. “They just kind of stayed as a group working to support him.
“In really supporting him, they’re working to support the community. And to encourage kids that they can rise above neighborhoods and problems and that they can achieve great things.”
An inspiration to youth
McNair shared his story in schools and churches, accepting most offers, if time permitted, that came his way. After the Challenger mission, which would have been his last as an astronaut, McNair was going to teach, his widow said.
The Challenger Learning Center on Barnhamville Road, near Columbia’s W.A. Perry Middle School, is one of dozens nationwide established as a living memorial to the Challenger crew. There is a hall dedicated to McNair, where, during tours, guides share his story.
“We like to use that when we are talking to students,” said Thelma Clayvon, the center’s director. “A lot of times students will say, ‘Well I’m from a poor area.’ Ron grew up poor, and we like to tell them that he worked very hard.
“When they come in, they know they have the option to try without being penalized. They know that they will be encouraged.”
The Learning Center allows students to simulate space missions, from launch to landing shuttles. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., has been a strong supporter of the center - and McNair’s legacy.
“All that he achieved during his remarkable life resulted from hard work and dedication,” Clyburn said. “He continues to teach us all to use our talents for the benefits of others. He gave the ultimate sacrifice, but left us with a legacy that will endure for generations to come.”
That’s if people like Cooper continue to support McNair.
“It seems like we should have more really coming from the community to us instead of us bringing it to them,” he said.
Carl agreed, saying there aren’t enough torch bearers for McNair. Cheryl said sharing McNair’s story exposes students to the possibilities of life.
“I think it gives inspiration to youth,” she said, “if they follow in the footsteps and listen to the message that was given.”
The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center is just a short walk from Lake City’s current public library.