Dedication of the Willie McCool Memorial Marker at the United States Naval Academy

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Sunday December 2, 2007

Amidst the regular burden of work, some may appreciate this short description of an emotional ceremony I attended this past Sunday at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It was not widely reported in the media but held a very special significance for NASA employees, in particular for those who happen to be runners. I'm a runner and, while there have been many times when I've been tempted to break down on a racecourse, this was a special time.

Willie McCool was the pilot on Columbia when the Space Shuttle broke up approximately 16 minutes from scheduled touchdown in 2003. In addition to his many accomplishments as a test pilot and astronaut, Willie was a graduate of the Naval Academy, #2 in his class, and captain of the Navy cross-country team. Shortly after the Columbia accident, Navy supporters organized a drive to place a memorial marker on the cross-country course where Willie had run his best time as a Navy runner. I first read about the effort in "Runner's World" magazine a while back and made a contribution.

27:24 for five miles is impressive by any measure, especially for an under-graduate with military responsibilities running against nationally ranked athletes from Georgetown and Syracuse. 16 minutes back from the finish line on the Navy course, using that time, is alongside the running trail near the 15th tee on the golf course. It is just at the rise of a small but significant hill. For those runners who like soft surfaces, the course is absolutely beautiful.

Sunday was overcast and rainy. I drove out to Annapolis and met a small crowd of people near the stone marker, some in military uniform. The memorial is striking, inscribed with a quotation of Willie's from orbit about the perceived absence of national boundaries, very fitting as the Superintendent of the Academy noted, during the week which had just seen a middle east peace conference take place at the Academy.

One speaker noted that remnants of an American flag recovered from the Columbia debris, some of which he displayed, had been cast along with the bronze in part of the plaque. Stars for each astronaut in the crew surrounded the base. Before the ceremony, someone placed Willie's NASA helmet in front of the marker. There were notes from his classmates as well. Members of the current Navy cross-country team shuttled some of the guests from the parking area to the site.

Lani McCool, Willie's widow, was present, along with his parents and three children. Lani spoke briefly, pausing at times for composure. Ilan Ramon's widow was present. With Lani's permission, a tape of John Lennon's "Imagine," played to wake the crew during Columbia's flight, was played for the crowd, along with the crew's voices from orbit. Many distinguished visitors were present in solidarity, including NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, former Associate Administrator and Navy graduate, Bill Readdy, and other Navy graduates, some of whom had gone on to distinguished NASA careers.

Willie's former cross-country coach said a few words. Someone mentioned Willie had written to him just before launch saying it was the lessons he learned while running at Navy that had helped get him to this point. The Superintendent and Athletic Director recounted Willie's accomplishments at the Academy. Willie's classmate was the most eloquent.

He mentioned that even though Willie had run his best time for Navy on this course, he had finished just behind several of the best runners in the country, including a runner from Syracuse who won the race. The Syracuse runner returned to the Navy course for this ceremony, to honor Willie. When the entire contingent of former Navy runners posed for a photo in front of the memorial, one of the Navy alumni asked him to be a part of the picture, right in front.

More than one speaker referred to the strategic location of the memorial just over the rise on the hill, noting it would give Navy runners just that added boost when really needed, near the end of the course. Future runners from Georgetown and Syracuse might benefit as well. Closer reflection might wait until after the race.

At the end of the ceremony, a midshipman played "Amazing Grace" on the solo bagpipe. There was not a dry eye. I made a mental note to see whether it might be possible to run the course someday, pausing at the McCool Memorial marker when coming over the hill. Thank you, Willie and the crew of Columbia, for giving me something to think about while running.


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