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Staff Column: Let’s name new school after Charlie Duke

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By Greg Summers

Naming a new public building is a chance to celebrate something we’re proud of.
Next August, a new elementary school will be opening in Lancaster County. And if the committee assigned with choosing a name is fishing for ideas, I have a suggestion.
It should be named Charlie Duke Elementary School to honor our homegrown Apollo 16 astronaut.
Twelve men have left footprints on the moon. Duke, who celebrated his 82nd birthday Tuesday, is one of them. He logged 71 hours on the lunar surface in April 1972.
This should be as uncontroversial as it gets. Whenever I bring this up with people, I get the same response: Well, yeah, that’s a great idea.
I will acknowledge that Duke has already been saluted in several ways around town and the state.  
He has been a member of the S.C. Hall of Fame since 1973, and he’s a Distinguished Eagle Scout. There’s a mural of him on Dunlap Street and a bust in the Lancaster County Library. He was even on the cover of our phone book once.
There are several signs bearing his name around the city limits. One of his spacesuits is displayed in the state museum, which is good, but not good enough.
We have a lot of newcomers in the county who might not know much about Duke’s story, so let me explain a bit.
Much to his credit, Charlie Duke, just like his twin brother, the late Dr. Billy Duke, put himself in the position to be successful.
His only goal in 1951 was attending the Naval Academy, so he left Lancaster High after his sophomore year. Why? Because the classes needed to qualify for the Annapolis, Md., military academy weren’t taught in our public school.
While Billy did graduate from Lancaster Senior High School, Charlie attended the Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla., and in 1953 was its class valedictorian. Four years later, he tossed his hat in the air, graduating from the Naval Academy.
By 1959, he was stationed in Germany flying jet interceptors for the U.S. Air Force when the first astronauts were selected.
In June 1962, Duke decided to become a test pilot, which he still considers “the best job you could have” if you enjoy flying.
He went back to school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to earn a master’s in aeronautics, and while he was there he met a couple of astronauts.
“At first they picked seven, but then decided to pick more, so I felt like I had a chance,” Duke told me during a 2002 interview.
Duke indeed had the right stuff. He graduated from USAF Test Pilot School in 1965 and was then one of 19 Apollo astronauts selected the next year. After serving on the mission control team for Apollo 11, Duke trained as a lunar module pilot for three years, and on April 21, 1972, found himself among an elite group. He stood on the moon.
In our 2002 interview, Duke said when he took his first step on the lunar surface, he didn’t have a big speech planned. He was just glad to finally be there…. A kid from Lancaster whose only goal was flying had soared higher than he dared dream.
“It was more of a feeling than a thought,” said Duke, who eventually retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general. “My thoughts were technical because that’s how your mind had been programmed to think. There was a peacefulness and serenity about it. It wasn’t anything Star War-ish or eerie. It was sense of belonging, wonder and awe.
“When you really stop to think about it, you say... ‘Hey, I’m on the moon’ and when you look at the Earth, you think... ‘Man, I’m a long way from home.’
“Who would’ve ever thought somebody from Lancaster would step on the moon?” Duke asked me, as he sat in a front porch rocking chair sipping a glass of iced tea. “But if you set your goals, you can do anything.”
And isn’t that what education is all about? That’s why this county needs Charlie Duke Elementary, with a school emblem modeled after the Apollo 16 logo, with a Moonwalkers mascot.
As you can tell, I’ve marinated this idea in my mind for years. So when a local committee starts considering names for a new school, they will hear from me, possibly more than they want.
But I want them to hear from you, too. Go to our website and answer this question: “Should the new elementary school in Lancaster County be named for Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke?”
I’ve been told that some possible names of the new school include are Osceola Elementary School, Van Wyck Elementary and Gene Moore Elementary.
There’s nothing wrong with those, but those names don’t fly.
But a hometown moonwalker…. He really flies!

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Gregory A. Summers is a reporter at The Lancaster News.