Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Friday, April 19
The Indiana Daily Student

A legacy's liftoff

A small Indiana town still cherishes its space pioneer, Gus Grissom

MITCHELL, Ind. -- It's easy to miss this one stoplight town without the stoplight, 25 miles south of Bloomington. And it's even easier to stick out if you don't belong.\nIn this town of two barbershop chairs, but only one barber, secrets are never safe. Families take up blocks.\nAnd everyone has a Gus Grissom story.\nGrissom is the town's favored son and a national hero -- the second American in space and the first to leave Earth twice.\nOver the past 36 years, after Grissom died in America's race to put a man on the moon, most people have forgotten about Mitchell. But there have been moments. The Challenger's explosion in 1986 and the resurrection of Grissom's first space capsule in 1999 both put Mitchell, population 4,567, back on the map.\nFor a while, anyway.\nNow little Mitchell is back again after last Saturday's explosion of the shuttle Columbia over Texas. "Everyone's been calling," said Brandt Baughman, the assistant manager of Spring Mill State Park, the home of Grissom's memorial museum.\nBut even that won't last long.\nWhat has, is a small town's enduring love for the man who made it known.\nWHAT'S THE 'I' STAND FOR ANYWAY?\nLocal kids grow up on Virgil I. Grissom. A group from Mitchell Head Start was touring the three-room memorial museum Tuesday morning while a 39-year-old remembered aloud at the local barbershop the lessons he learned at Mitchell's high school.\n"They spend three or four days on Grissom," said Jeffrey Ray, sinking into Charlie White's chair three blocks from Grissom's boyhood home. "They have lots of stuff to show you. They seemed to focus on the space program."\nAt Spring Mill State Park, 25 toddlers ran around the museum while teachers taught them about Grissom's legacy. The first stop was his Gemini spacesuit, which circled Earth three times in five hours. The spacesuit indicated Grissom's small stature.\nEveryone called Grissom humble.\nBut the man was also small, 5 feet 7 inches, 155 pounds.\n"That's what NASA wanted," Baughman said. "If you look at the capsule, you can tell it wasn't meant for big men."\nSherri Lashlee and the other teachers at the Head Start had been teaching a space unit in class. Their visit to the memorial was planned weeks ahead of time. It was coincidence that journalists and pre-schoolers met Tuesday, days after a national tragedy.\n"We had the entire room decorated with space ships. The kids were so excited to come," said Lashlee, helping kids get a better look at the museum's second major attraction, the Molly Brown capsule Grissom used in the Gemini III mission. "It's a great chance to learn firsthand about a very important man that we all know."\nSome things, however, remain clearer than others:\n"Do you know what the 'I' stands for?" Ray asked.\n"I don't know," said White, a barber for 43 years, ready to take his clippers to Ray's scalp.\n"Me neither," Ray answered. "Mr. Smeltz found out, but I don't know what it was. He had to research it."\nLITTLE TOWN, LONG BLOODLINES\nCharlie White never really knew Grissom. But the two were related. \nSame for Khris Baker, he said sipping on coffee at the Old Mill Cafe before a trip to the doctor's office with his wife, Donna.\n"He's my mom's second cousin," said Baker, quick to add he went to high school with another famous Hoosier, John Mellencamp. "As a kid I'd watch the takeoffs, you know, because it's my mom's relative."\nWhite's link to Grissom is slightly more removed -- he's related to Grissom through White's step-grandfather. "It's not much to speak of."\nWhite's barbershop sits two blocks from Grissom Avenue, a quarter mile from Grissom's childhood home and a few more yards from the Grissom Monument next to the Municipal Hall building. Everything Mitchell is Grissom. \n"I've only been here three and a half years, but I can see just how proud this town is of him," said Terry Malcheski, owner of the Old Mill Cafe.\nThe museum sees 150,000 visitors each year, most coming from Indiana and surrounding states. It's currently seeking funds to upgrade its facilities, most of which haven't been altered since the museum opened in 1971, Brandt Baughman said.\n"He's very much a hero in the town," Baughman said. "Everyone has a connection."\nAlmost.\nSherri Lashlee father's drove the Molly Brown capsule to the Mitchell museum.\nMitchell resident Don Forbes learned to fly after watching Grissom fly in outer space.\nTerry McPherson doesn't understand all the fuss.\n"Big deal," McPherson said. "They should scrap the whole thing. It's unbelievable the amount of money they're spending. If the good Lord meant to put men on the moon, that's exactly where he would have put them."\nBut in a town were moon dreams aren't so unrealistic, McPherson is in the minority. Mitchell residents love everything astronaut.\nStarting with a little guy from a little town: Virgil I. Grissom.\nOh, and the "I" -- it stands for Ivan.

Get stories like this in your inbox