Friday, July 19, 2019

The Lost Astronaut: Indiana's Gus Grissom

I wanted to be an astronaut, a star voyager. As did many who grew up during the hectic 1960s, I became captivated by the adventures of the American space program. Dreaming of traveling among the stars, I often sat in the Mary Phillips Elementary School’s library in Mishawaka listening to an album containing the sounds of National Aeronauticsand Space Administration missions, and even constructed models of the gigantic Saturn V rocket for my school’s science fair (I remain disappointed to this day at capturing only an honorable mention award for my display).

On the evening of July 20, 1969, I strained to stay awake in order to watch on television as Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon and to hear him utter the now famous words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Space fever still gripped me a few years later when my family took a vacation to SpringMill State Park, which is located near Mitchell, Indiana. What impressed me on that trip was not the park’s Pioneer Village, with its restored log cabins and working gristmill, or the blind fish swimming in Donaldson’s Cave, but rather a simple, low-slung structure near the park’s entrance: the Virgil I. “Gus”Grissom Memorial.

Formally dedicated by Indiana governor Edgar D. Whitcomb in 1971, the memorial pays tribute to the Mitchell-born Grissom, one of the nation’s seven original astronauts, the second American to go into space, the first person to travel into space twice, and one of the first in NASA’s space effort—along with Apollo 1 crewmates Ed White and Roger Chaffee—to die, when a fire swept through the spacecraft during a test at Cape Kennedy early on the evening of January 27, 1967.

To a space nut like me, the Grissom memorial was heaven. My two brothers and I eagerly explored the interior of Grissom’s Gemini 3 two-man capsule, which the astronaut had named after the title character in the Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, about a woman who helped save a number of her shipmates on the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Naming the capsule after that character, Grissom reasoned, might help avert a calamity such as the one that befell him when his LibertyBell 7 Mercury capsule sank at the conclusion of his 1961 spaceflight. Also impressive to my young eyes was the memorial’s Universe Room, which included a six-foot-in-diameter illuminated globe that rotated as a tape of Grissom and his ground-control cohorts during his Gemini flight played in the background. To this Hoosier, Gus Grissom has always been a full-blooded American hero.

To some, however, Grissom is not now remembered as such. Both Tom Wolfe’s best-selling The Right Stuff, published in 1979, and the movie of the same name based on that book have implied that Grissom panicked—had, in test-pilot parlance, “screwed the pooch”—at the end of his approximately fifteen-minute Mercury spaceflight. Whether Grissom accidentally brushed against the plunger that triggered the hatch’s firing or purposefully pushed it, the book and movie blamed him for causing the hatch to blow off the capsule, which allowed the craft to take on water and sink like a stone to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Grissom’s explanation of “I was lying there, flat on my back—and it just blew,” was met, according to Wolfe, by a healthy amount of skepticism from space-agency officials and Grissom’s test-pilot brethren. “The damned things had been wrung inside out, but never, so far as anyone could recall, had a single hatch ever ‘just blown,’” Wolfe noted. Both author Wolfe and film director Philip Kaufman found their hero in Chuck Yeager, World War II fighter ace and the first man to break the sound barrier; Grissom became the goat.

Wolfe’s assertions about Grissom’s panicky behavior after the Mercury flight and the depiction of Grissom in the movie as a bit of an oaf were met with anger and dismay by Mitchell residents, who had turned out by the thousands to cheer their local hero at a special Memorial Day parade following his Gemini flight in 1965. Don Caudell, who worked for years to build the rocket-shaped memorial honoring Grissom that now stands on the site of the astronaut’s former elementary school, spoke for many residents of the town when he said he worked so hard on behalf of the project not because of Grissom’s tragic death, but rather because of his achievements. “He came from the ground up and, by his own efforts, he got to a place where people hadn’t been before,” Caudell said of the astronaut. “That’s what made him special.”

Bill Head, another Mitchell resident, sees the rise of his childhood friend to worldwide renown as a success story comparable to that of another notable southern Indiana native son: Abraham Lincoln. Living in Mitchell during the height of the Great Depression, Head noted that he and Grissom’s future seemed “damned dim. What did we have to look forward to?” The shocking thing to Head is not that both Grissom and Lincoln were raised in small-town Indiana, but that they “got out” and made something of themselves in the larger world outside of the Hoosier State. “He was in the right place at the right time with the right background,” Head said of his friend. What’s more, once Grissom became famous, said Head, he never forgot where he had come from. When early press accounts about the reaction to Grissom being named an astronaut were datelined Bedford, Grissom, Head pointed out, made sure that subsequent reports used Mitchell instead. “He put Mitchell on the map,” he said. Head’s description of his friend is in stark contrast to the portrayal in Wolfe’s book of Grissom as one in a long line from the Midwest and elsewhere who “prostrated themselves daily in thanksgiving” at having escaped “the gray little town they came from.”

Others in the southern Indiana area were so inspired by Grissom’s example that they too went on to careers in the American space program. Bedford, Indiana, native Charles D. Walker, a Purdue University graduate, NASA’s first industrial payload specialist, and a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions, noted that he did not believe he could have accomplished what he has done in his life if it were not for Grissom. “He was my hero,” said Walker. “He was somebody from home.” Although born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Kenneth D. Bowersox graduated from Bedford High School in 1974 and considers the Lawrence County community to be his hometown. Growing up in the area with the memory of Grissom still fresh in the mind of many helped reinforce the veteran of four Space Shuttle flights belief that he could accomplish whatever he wanted to do in his life.

Grissom also had his defenders among his fellow astronauts and NASA engineers, who claimed that the Korean War pilot, veteran of one hundred combat missions, had nothing to do with the hatch mishap. Wolfe’s insinuations of panic on Grissom’s part were way off base according to Gordon Cooper, one of the country’s original seven astronauts, who died recently. “He [Grissom] did not screw up and lose his spacecraft,” Cooper said. “Later tests showed the hatch could malfunction, just as Gus said it did.” Sam Beddingfield, a NASA engineer responsible for the pyrotechnics and recovery system on the Mercury capsule and a friend of Grissom’s who believed in the astronaut’s courage and poise, thoroughly investigated the incident and discovered ways in which the hatch could have blown in the manner described by Grissom. 

The lead recovery helicopter pilot for the Liberty Bell 7 flight, Jim Lewis, said years after the capsule’s sinking that in his mind Grissom remained a great pilot. “When people say that Grissom panicked and blew the hatch,” said Lewis, “I say he was a smart man. He was a test pilot. Nobody is going to look outside and see water at their eyeballs and open the door.” Even the actor who played the unlucky astronaut in the movie The Right Stuff, Fred Ward, expressed doubt about Grissom blowing the hatch on purpose. Ward learned that all the astronauts who did blow their hatches suffered a bruised hand, and Grissom’s hand remained unmarked after his flight. “I think NASA sort of pointed the finger at him to take the blame off themselves for losing the capsule,” the actor said. “I don’t think he was responsible at all.”

Although the hatch incident still haunts Grissom’s reputation today, it failed to harm his career with NASA. While the Mercury program continued to send men into space, Grissom moved on to work on the space agency’s next project: Gemini. His influence on the design of the two-man spacecraft was so strong that his fellow astronauts dubbed it the Gusmobile. Fellow astronauts might have complained about the cramped crew compartment (modeled after Grissom’s short height), but many shared Pete Conrad’s sentiment when he compared Gemini’s flight characteristics to that of “a high-performance fighter.”

NASA officials must have been pleased with Grissom’s work on Gemini as he was selected as commander of the first Apollo flight, which became the ill-fated Apollo 1. If all had gone well with that assignment, the Mitchell-born flier was in line for another milestone—becoming the first man to walk on the moon. Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, one of the original seven astronauts who later picked crews as head of the astronaut office, said he and Robert Gilruth, director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, had agreed before the Apollo 1 tragedy that if possible a Mercury astronaut would have first crack at walking on the moon. “And at that time Gus was the one guy from the original seven who had the experience to press on through to the [moon] landing,” said Slayton. If Grissom had lived he, and not Armstrong, might have been the one remembered in history books for being the first human to stand on another world.

Even without the historic distinction that would have come with being the first to plant a footprint on the moon’s surface, Grissom and his life (particularly the continuing mystery of Liberty Bell 7’s hatch) have inspired the imagination of dreamers, deep-sea explorers, actor-scientists, and others. The film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984, featured an Oberth class Starfleet science vessel named in honor of the lost astronaut, the USS Grissom. In May 1999, Curt Newport, a veteran deep-sea explorer, found Grissom’s spacecraft lying three miles down on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean about three hundred miles southeast from where it was launched. Unable to raise the capsule due to the loss of the submersible craft Magellan, Newport returned to the site in July and successfully hoisted the Liberty Bell 7 (minus its hatch) off the ocean floor, thirty-eight years after it became the only American manned spacecraft to be lost following a successful mission. The operation ended nearly fifteen years of research and planning by Newport, whose expedition was financed and filmed by the Discovery Channel. Although the Kansas Cosmosphereand Space Center restored the capsule and sent it on a nationwide tour, it failed to find a definitive answer to the blown-hatch mystery.

The astronaut is also still revered in the Hoosier State. To commemorate the end of the twentieth century, the Indianapolis Star in December 1999 announced an effort to name the ten greatest Hoosiers of the past century. Approximately 6,000 readers cast their opinion in what the Star called “one of the largest reader participation projects in the newspaper’s history.” When all the ballots were counted, Grissom, the son of a railroad worker, ranked fifth in the voting, placing behind such legendary figures as businessman Eli Lilly, poet James Whitcomb Riley, war correspondent Ernie Pyle, and composer Cole Porter, and ahead of such great names as songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, comedian Red Skelton, businesswoman Madam C. J. Walker, basketball star Larry Bird, and former Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman.

The wildly differing viewpoints of Grissom as a man and as a pilot over the years can be seen in part as a reflection of the times. Upon his selection as an astronaut in 1959, the United States was engaged in a seemingly desperate struggle for survival with the Soviet Union—a country that had beaten America into space two years before with its Sputnik (a “traveling companion” or “fellow traveler”) satellite. The Russian success, followed shortly by launching a dog into orbit, shocked the American public, which, as historian William Manchester noted, seemed to believe that this country held a monopoly on technological advances. But the launch of Sputnik meant that the Soviet Union had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten American cities with nuclear annihilation.

President Dwight Eisenhower's administration attempted to downplay the Russian achievement, but both the public—and the Democratic opposition in Congress—clamored for action.  “Control of space means control of the world, far more totally than any control that has ever or could ever be achieved by weapons, or troops of occupation,” warned then–U.S. Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson. “Whoever gains that ultimate position gains control, total control, over the earth, for the purposes of tyranny or for the service of freedom.”

When the United States attempted to match the Communists’ achievements, it floundered badly. In July 1955 the White House had announced plans to launch a small Earth-orbiting satellite in observation of the International Geophysical Year (established by the International Council of Scientific Unions as July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, a time of high solar activity). For the mission, the Defense Department selected the Naval Research Laboratory’s as yet undeveloped Project Vanguard, which won out over Wernher von Braun’s team of German engineers at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal. On December 6, 1957, before a host of reporters and a live television audience, an American Viking rocket rose only a few feet off its launching pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, before disaster struck. The rocket never got off the ground, breaking apart and striking the ground with a roar that could be felt by scientists safe behind a blockhouse’s two-foot-thick concrete wall and six inches of bulletproof glass.

Not everything went wrong with Project Vanguard. The grapefruit-size satellite survived the explosion, landed in some nearby scrub grass, and its transmitters began to faithfully broadcast its radio signals. The sight and sound of the forlorn American scientific apparatus prompted columnist Dorothy Kilgallen to ask, “Why doesn’t someone go out there, find it, and kill it?” Newspaper headlines across the country heaped scorn upon the effort, with the Chicago Sun-Times’s cleverly reading, “Oh, What a Flopnik,” and the San Francisco News calling the fiasco a “Cold War Pearl Harbor.” Time magazine suggested that the satellite program be renamed “Project Rearguard.” America’s humiliation became complete at the United Nations when the Soviet delegation offered the United States financial aid as part of a Russian program to aid less-developed nations.

Although the United States finally managed to place an object in space with Explorer 1 onboard a Juno rocket on January 31, 1958, the American public still itched to overtake its Soviet foes in the space race. When the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration presented the country’s original astronauts—Grissom, Slayton, and Cooper from the U.S. Air Force; Malcom Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra Jr., and Alan B. Shepard from the U.S. Navy; and John H. Glenn Jr. from the U.S. Marines—at a 2:00 p.m. press conference on April 9, 1959, in Washington, D.C., the assembled members of the media actually applauded and cheered—an ovation that stunned the astronauts. “I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since,” said Slayton, a veteran flyer from World War II. Loudon Wainwright, a reporter for Life magazine, which had signed the astronauts and their wives to an exclusive contract for their personal stories, described the seven men in a 1961 book as “perhaps the most adventurous, the most thoroughly courageous, the best-rounded group of explorers ever assembled anywhere at any time.” 

The press’s enthusiasm merely reflected the public’s high regard for the brave pilots ready to risk their lives aboard America’s finicky rockets, which showed an alarming tendency to blow up on the launching pad. Becoming the country’s newest heroes, noted Slayton, happened “without us doing a damned thing” except appear at a news conference, a situation the air force veteran termed as “crazy.” The esteem in which the astronauts were held was highlighted by the reaction of one audience to a speech given by Grissom, not known among the astronaut corps for his loquaciousness. Speaking before approximately eighteen thousand workers at General Dynamics in San Diego, where the Convair Division was building the Atlas rocket, Grissom uttered just three words: “Do good work.” The Hoosier’s remarks, perhaps the shortest pep talk in history, prompted the crowd to scream its approval so loudly that Grissom and other dignitaries were almost knocked off the stage.

Grissom’s taciturn nature was no secret to the other members of the astronaut corps. On weekends he and Slayton would often climb aboard a jet and fly around the country. John Glenn noted that when the two men flew on these coast-to-coast excursions they probably “made the least talkative flights ever made by two people anywhere.” Even Grissom and Slayton joked about the silence, dubbing their flights as being “East Coast to West Coast in ten words or less.” Grissom always seemed uncomfortable with the public attention, particularly from the press, that came from being an astronaut. 

The negative publicity following his Liberty Bell 7 flight only hardened his media shyness and led him to do whatever he could to blend into the woodwork. “As far as I know,” said CBS television anchorman Walter Cronkite, “he was the only astronaut ever to don [a] disguise to duck the waiting press.” Cronkite also remembered that Grissom faced the media responsibilities associated with a spaceflight with much more apprehension than the flight itself, and his answers to the press’s questions were “cryptic and laconic.” On one occasion when Grissom was set to board a commercial flight in Orlando, Florida, to visit an air force installation in Texas, he donned a disguise that included a floppy straw hat and sunglasses. When Grissom asked Slayton for his opinion about his outfit, the astronaut deadpanned: “You look just like Gus Grissom in dark glasses and a hat.” In spite of his friend’s skeptical assessment, Grissom managed to slip by the reporters and photographers who were lying in wait for him at the Orlando airport, a small victory that pleased the astronaut no end.

For the most part, however, the astronauts faced a friendly response from the press. With the benefit of hindsight, Wainwright later reflected that he and the other staff members from Life came to their assignment with a different mindset than usual when reporting a story. “We had virtually abdicated skepticism,” he said. “Possibly our attitudes had to do with the general innocence of the period or with a more ordinary need for heroes. Yet, from top to bottom, the Life group stood in some real awe of the Mercury pilots and were pretty wide-eyed about their mission.” Also, because the magazine had bought the astronaut’s stories, it and its staff were not looking to cause any problems with the space program. The Life team of reporters, editors, and photographers took upon themselves “the responsibility of telling the story in a positive way, one that would reflect credit on the men and the space program,” said Wainwright. They believed it was their duty to protect what had become an extremely valuable national asset. He added that NASA was all too willing to aid in that effort as a way to win public acceptance, and increased government funding, for its program. All of these factors helped turn the reporters from observers to cheerleaders, Wainwright noted, and the interests of “patriotism and successful publishing seemed somehow to meld together . . . in a warm, red-white-and-blue glow.”

The public, too, was more than ready to embrace the astronauts, perhaps to counteract the swelling panic that gripped the nation following the Soviet Union’s space triumphs. Faced with a public looking for heroes and a media unwilling to report on any negative personal qualities, there soon developed the “myth of the super-hero astronaut,” noted Apollo 7 veteran Walter Cunningham, who along with Donn Eisele and Schirra served as the backup crew to Grissom’s Apollo 1 flight. Most of the astronauts found the attention both flattering and easy to get along with, said Cunningham, but few could actually live up to the image projected by the media and NASA. “We weren’t all simon-pure nor all hell-raisers,” Cunningham noted in his book about the astronauts, aptly titled The All-American Boys. The great deeds accomplished by the American space program were “fulfilled by men who were all too human in their weaknesses as well as their strengths,” he wrote.     

The myth of the super-hero astronaut endured for many years, egged on by continuing progress with the Mercury and Gemini programs and the promise of fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade with the mighty Apollo project. The deaths of Grissom, Chaffee, and White, however, came just before one of the most tumultuous times in the country’s history. The year 1968 saw the North Vietnamese launch their Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and its American allies, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and RobertKennedy, large-scale riots by African Americans in a number of large cities, and police and protesters clashing at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. With the escalating involvement of American troops in Vietnam, NASA had to endure severe cuts in its budget. Following Apollo 11’s achievement of a moon landing in 1969, the space agency found it harder and harder to find support in Congress for its programs, with the planned missions of Apollo 18, Apollo 19, and Apollo 20 eliminated.

As NASA suffered budget limitations—why spend more money on space when the United States had already beaten the Russians to the moon?—America’s space heroes had their own problems. Fueled by the legacy of Vietnam and Watergate, the American media refused as it once did to turn a blind eye to the peccadilloes of those in the public eye, politicians and astronauts alike. Wolfe’s critically acclaimed The Right Stuff not only penetrated the closed world of the test-pilot, fighter-jock fraternity, but it also laid bare the astronaut’s extracurricular activities of “Drinking & Driving & the rest,” complete with “juicy little girls” bragging about their sexual liaisons with the original seven astronauts by “going around saying, ‘Well, four down, three to go!’” But even before Wolfe’s book, some astronauts had admitted their failings to the public. In his book Cunningham told about the “astronaut groupies” who worked hard to add as many space travelers to their scorecard as possible. Still, as a group the astronauts, Cunningham estimated, were no better or worse than the national average when it came to infidelity. “It is even possible, under the circumstances,” he noted, “that our behavior was better than the gossip and suspicion implied.” After all, astronauts had far more temptations facing them than the average businessman did.

The deconstruction of the astronaut hero continued when Wolfe’s book was made into a 1983 movie, which was written and directed by Kaufman. Originally, veteran Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote screenplays for such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, had been selected by United Artists producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler to pen the film’s script. At the time Goldman became involved with the project (November 1979), radical Iranian students had seized as hostages diplomats and other employees of the American embassy in Iran. For the first time in his career, Goldman wrote in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, he wanted to write a film that had a message. “I wanted to ‘say’ something positive about America,” said Goldman. “Not patriotic in the John Wayne sense, but patriotic none the less.” By telling the story of the astronauts, the screenwriter hoped to impart to viewers that “America was still a great place, and not just to visit.”

That effort came to naught when Kaufman, who had directed the critically acclaimed Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), was brought on board as director. The two men’s ideas about the film clashed at once. When Goldman told Kaufman about his plans for producing a patriotic movie, the director blanched. Kaufman, according to Goldman, had been won over by Wolfe’s depiction of Yeager as the country’s greatest pilot, an iconic figure head and shoulders above all other flyers. “Phil’s heart was with Yeager. And not only that,” said Goldman, “he [Kaufman] felt the astronauts, rather than being heroic, were really minor leaguers, mechanical men of no particular quality, not great pilots at all, simply the product of hype.” What Kaufman wanted to say, Goldman noted, was that America might have been a great country at one time, but those days were long gone. According to Kaufman, the story of Yeager was “the essence of what Tom Wolfe’s book was about. It’s about searching for the origin of that special quality. Whatever you may want to call it—grace under pressure—a kind of secret quality that was passed on from one generation of test pilots to the next.” Goldman did not share the director’s vision for the film and left the project.

Kaufman’s view of Yeager as being superior in ability to the men who eventually became astronauts permeates the film. One scene that typifies Kaufman’s viewpoint comes when two hapless governmental representatives, played with comic aplomb by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, arrive at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert to recruit test pilots for the new American space program. Walking into a local bar where the pilots congregate—Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club—the men and the program they represent are greeted with disdain by such top test pilots as Yeager and Scott Crossfield. “What you need,” says Yeager, played by Sam Shepard, “is a little lab rabbit to curl up inside your damn capsule with his heart going pitter-patter and a wire up the kazoo. I don’t hold with it.” Of course, the government does not want the “best” test pilots; Yeager is ineligible for the astronaut program because he did not attend college and Crossfield, as a civilian, failed to have the proper security clearance. Instead of the top pilots, the government had to, according to Kaufman, take such second-rate flyers as Grissom and Cooper. Cooper, played by Dennis Quaid, even acknowledges the disparity of talent between the two groups, noting to his friend Grissom, “Well, there sure is a long line of shit-hot rocket aces around here. A long line.” Why not attempt to jump ahead in line by volunteering for a project that had the potential for becoming a high priority with the nation’s leaders?

Neglected in Kaufman’s version of events are the many accomplishments of the pilots selected as astronauts, and the fact that while they were at Edwards both Grissom and Cooper were not in direct competition with Yeager, but students at the air force’s test-pilot school there. After graduation, Grissom left Edwards for an assignment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. He was flying jets there when President Eisenhower decided in 1958 to draw upon the ranks of approximately five hundred military test pilots for the new astronaut corps. NASA’s Space Task Group was pleased to have such qualified men to pick from, believing as it did that the eventual success of a mission could well depend on a pilot’s actions in space. As Slayton notes in his autobiography, some of the astronauts certainly did not have the same professional achievements to compare with test pilots such as Yeager and Crossfield. Others in the program, however, had solid test-flight credentials: both Schirra and himself had done frontline test flying, Shepard had been one of the first navy flyers to land on an angled-deck carrier, and Grissom had been involved with all-weather testing at the Wright Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Whatever the opinion on the piloting skills of the original astronauts, they achieved their mission in spite of a run of bad luck that would have daunted lesser men. Grounded during the Mercury program due to an irregular heartbeat, Slayton stayed the course, eventually becoming chief of flight-crew operations for NASA and finally making it into space as part of the crew for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975. Shepard, the first American in space aboard Freedom 7, earned his nickname as the “Icy Commander” several times over after Ménière’s syndrome, an inner-ear disorder, kept him from flying more missions and he took over for Slayton as head of the astronaut office. Given new life by a radical medical procedure that cured his inner-ear imbalance, Shepard, too, made it back into space, walking on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.

None of the original astronauts, however, endured Grissom’s string of calamities and bad luck. In addition to the brouhaha and finger pointing over Liberty Bell 7’s blown hatch, he also suffered the embarrassment of being reprimanded by NASA officials and Congress for accepting and taking a few bites from a corned-beef sandwich smuggled aboard Gemini 3 by crewmate John Young (thoughtfully provided by prankster Schirra from a Cocoa Beach delicatessen). Years later, with the hatch controversy still dogging his career, Grissom became a forceful voice against using an explosive hatch on Apollo 1—a device that might have saved the crew from the toxic gases that killed them. Given Grissom’s rotten luck as an astronaut, it seemed almost inevitable that someone would try to blame him for causing, at that time, NASA’s worst disaster. One North American Aviation engineer hypothesized that Grissom had accidentally scuffed the insulation of a wire while moving about the spacecraft, which lead to a spark and the subsequent fire. This hypothesis was immediately rejected by the NASA review board and a congressional committee investigating the Apollo tragedy.

Throughout his career, however, Grissom never let his misfortunes stand in the way of his stated purpose for accepting such dangerous assignments—patriotism. “If my country has decided that I’m one of the better qualified people for the mission, then I’m glad I can participate,” he told a reporter from Life magazine. For a short time, Grissom even considered leaving NASA to join other air force pilots in flying missions in the Vietnam War (a pilot friend warned him that Vietnam was nothing like Korea). Instead of returning to air combat, Grissom continued to strive to put America on the moon, giving his life in the process and earning a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, with the service broadcast nationwide on television. Neighbors from Mitchell joined President Lyndon B. Johnson, members of Congress, and fellow astronauts at the funeral. 

It took NASA more than a year after the Apollo 1 accident, during which time the spacecraft was extensively reworked, to launch another manned mission. Apollo 7, commanded by Grissom’s friend Schirra, made 163 orbits during its eleven-day mission in the redesigned command module; America was back on its way to the moon. Years later, after six successful landings on the moon, Betty Grissom, reflecting on her husband, said: “I hate it that Gus is gone, but I guess the program was worth it. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.”



Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Newspaperman and the Moon Landing

From 1969 to 1986, one man, Frank Widner, who was once told by a journalism professor that he would “never make it” in the newspaper business, had the responsibility as news editor for the Indianapolis Star for deciding what stories would go on the Star’s front page and how they would be displayed. “It makes you feel like you have your fingers on everything going on in the world,” he said of his job.

Widner, who was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010, remembered that there were few dull days in the newsroom of a metropolitan newspaper such as the Star. But in a seven-day-a week operation, Sunday was perhaps the closest to being considered a slow news day.  Widner noted: “The big decision is what to make the main headline for the Monday morning edition? What is the top story of the day?”

The decision seemed to be an easy one for Widner to make on Sunday, July 20, 1969—if all went as planned, America was about to land two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, on the lunar surface as the crowning achievement of the Apollo 11 mission. (The third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins, stayed behind to fly the Command Module, Columbia.) “I wrote a ‘flag’ that anticipated the landing and moonwalk, and called Joe McHugh, who was the composing room foreman that day,” Widner recalled. He told McHugh to find the largest headline type he could find. They settled for 144-point type, more than twice the normal size, and the front page for Monday, July 21, began to take shape.

The news editor had also established a “moon desk” at the Star, and selected John McDowell, one of the best “rewrite men in the business” to run it. Star editors funneled all of the “moon” copy from the teletype machines to McDowell, and he sorted through the millions of words that spewed out and “meticulously rewrote the various wire service reports and came up with a clear and concise story of the historic event,” Widner noted.

Widner was no stranger to making important judgments when it came to groundbreaking news. Before joining the Star, he had worked on a competing local daily, the Indianapolis Times, where he started work in 1939 as a copy clerk, became the paper’s police reporter, and eventually served as its assistant managing editor. He was sitting in the Times newsroom on November 22, 1963, when he received a report that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. With the newspaper nearing its final-edition deadline, Widner acted quickly, leaping to his feet to hit a button behind his desk that, literally, stopped the presses.

As the time for the actual landing on the moon by the Lunar Module Eagle neared, the Star’s chief photographer, Jim Ramsey, set up his cameras in front of a television with a five-inch screen to photograph Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface. 

Widner had planned something different for page one—a single photograph of Armstrong on the moon with no article, just the headlines. “The story of the moon landing and walk, which McDowell would write, would be on page 2,” said Widner, who had his plan approved by Bob Early, the newspaper’s managing editor.

The unusual makeup for page one caused some consternation. Widner recalled the following conversation:

“Where’s the story going to go? Asked one veteran staffer who was walking past the Page 1 draft in the composing room that was waiting for THE PICTURE.

I replied, “It’s all on Page 2.”

“But,” he said, “we’ve never done this before.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “But we’ve never put a man on the moon before either.”



    

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Rookie and the Crime Reporter

In the spring of 1937, editors at the Indianapolis Times offered a full-time job to one of the newspaper’s freelance correspondents at DePauw University, John Bartlow Martin, at a weekly salary of $22.50. Martin accepted the newspaper’s offer and arranged with university officials to finish his coursework in absentia while working in Indianapolis. “They were insistent that I come at once,” Martin said of his editors, “and I was afraid not to,” remembering how hard jobs were to come by during the Great Depression.

First published as the Indianapolis Sun in 1888, the newspaper became the Times in 1923 after its purchase the year before by Scripps-Howard Newspapers headed by Roy Howard, who had grown up in Indianapolis and worked for both the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News. The Times enjoyed a reputation as a vigorous and crusading newspaper, winning the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1928 for its coverage the year before exposing the oppressive influence of the KuKlux Klan in the state.

In comparison to the other newspapers in the city, which Martin described as supporting the Republican Party and filled with dull, uninspired reporting, the Times was “lively, aggressive, liberal, and leaning Democratic, more fun to read and to work on. The Times hired you young, paid you little, and promoted you fast.” On Martin’s first day of work at the newspaper he received a curt assignment from the city editor, who told him, “Report to Heze Clark at 4 a.m. tomorrow. He’ll tell you what to do.”

Clark, whose full name was Hezlep Williamson Clark, had been the police reporter at the Times since July 1, 1928, and remained in the same position until his death in 1956, earning a distinction as the oldest working police reporter in the country.

Although born in Michigan, Clark had come to Indiana as a youth to Bluffton, where his father and uncle operated a newspaper that staunchly supported Prohibition. Later in life Clark still had vivid memories of falling into a batch of printer’s ink at the age of five. He also enjoyed reminiscing about the time in 1891 when his father, also the son of a newspaperman, brought him for the first time to Indianapolis. After a fire engine raced by the duo, Clark’s father took him by the hand and said, “you might as well cover your first fire.”

A star football player at Indianapolis’s Shortridge High School, Clark went on to earn All-American honors as a halfback during his junior year at Indiana University, graduating in 1907. He started his newspaper career as an assistant sports editor with the Star, covered the police beat on the Terre Haute Tribune, and returned to Indianapolis to cover the federal courthouse for the Sun.

During his career covering crime news, Clark got in a few scraps now and then. In 1916 Willard Norris, seventeen, who had been arrested for breaking and entering into a shoe store, attacked Clark at the reporter’s home on East Twenty-Sixth Street. Norris had vowed to seek revenge on those who had written anything about him and his crime.

As the Star reported, “the attempt to down the former football player proved futile, for Clark, obtaining a hold that had made him the champion wrestler at Indiana University when he was a student, held the youth until the arrival of Motor Policeman Burk and Shope and Patrolmen Burris and Oakley. Norris was arrested, charged with assault and battery with intent to kill and carrying concealed weapons. It is said that he was armed with a pair of ‘knucks’ and a long knife.”

Arriving home after work one night, Clark had noticed Norris sitting on the steps of a vacant house just west of his residence. Clark was sitting on his back porch when Norris came up and asked him to step out and hear what he had to say. When Clark approached Norris, the youth hit him several times over the head before the former athlete could grab him. “Clark suffered severe bruises on the side and head,” the Star reported, “but was not injured seriously.”

Clark left journalism in 1923 to coach athletics at Rose Polytechnic Institute (today Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology) in Terre Haute, leaving five years later to join the Times as its police reporter. Over his many years on the job, Clark, a chunky, balding figure, became known for his tenacious recording of facts on cases, his loyalty to the newspaper, his unrelenting work ethic, and his detailed memory. Once asked the secret to his longevity, the respected newsman responded, “Come to work a little earlier, work a little harder and work a little longer and you’ll always be on top.”

Martin had the unenviable task of replacing the then sixty-year-old Clark on the 4:00 a.m. to noon police reporter shift (Clark switched to the afternoon shift). For a week young reporter followed the veteran newsman as he prowled around the corridors of police headquarters, raced to the scene of crimes and fires, collected all the facts he could, and phoned them in to the rewrite men on the Times news desk.

Although Martin came to discover in their time together that Clark could not write a proper English sentence, he was the “most thorough collector of facts on police cases I ever knew.” Martin learned from Clark whom to talk to, whom he should avoid, and what questions he should ask. “They didn’t call it ‘on the job training’ or ‘internship;’ they called it ‘breaking the kid in,’” Martin remembered. “That’s what it was. After a week I was there alone. That’s how I became a reporter.”

Many years later, while teaching at Northwestern University’s Medill School ofJournalism, Martin wondered how a student could manage to spend thousands of dollars and a full year “learning less than Heze Clark taught me in a few days [for] free.”






Monday, July 8, 2019

For the People: Indiana Congresswoman Julia Carson


The procession began early the morning of Friday, December 21, 2007. As people gathered in the streets to say goodbye, holding their hands over their hearts with tears in their eyes, a horse-drawn military caisson left 2530 North Park Avenue on the near north side of Indianapolis for the approximately three-mile trip to the Indiana Statehouse. Drummers and an honor guard with rifles and a U.S. and Indiana flag led the way while about fifty friends and family members marched behind the caisson.

Once the flag-draped casket arrived at the capitol, uniformed members of the Indiana National Guard carried the body to formally lie in state in the Statehouse’s rotunda to be met by a large crowd gathered to pay their respects. Only a few dignitaries—Abraham Lincoln, James Whitcomb Riley, and Benjamin Harrison for example—had received such a distinction in the nineteenth state’s history. All of those so honored had one thing in common—they were male. The newest member of this select company, someone Governor Mitch Daniels called “the people’s best friend,” however, was different from those who had come before; she was a woman, Julia Carson.

The Statehouse ceremony honoring Carson, a politician who never lost an election in her long career, included an impressive array of notables from the world of Hoosier politics, including her grandson, Andre Carson, then an Indianapolis City Council member, who called his grandmother “the people’s champ.”  Those who lined up to say farewell to a woman they simply knew as “Julia” also remembered someone whom they could always count on for assistance in times of trouble. Bonnie Spalding, a seventy-three-year-old dressed in an “I Love Julia” t-shirt, recalled a woman who never forgot that “there were people who really needed her help. She was prepared to do it all the time, no matter what.” Others also touted Carson’s ability to remain connected to her past as she rose from impoverished beginnings to a career in the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C. Vanessa Summers, a Carson friend and Indiana legislator, said the congresswoman might have objected to all the fuss. “I’ll bet she’s looking down saying, ‘I told them not to do all this, but boy, it looks good,’” said Summers.

Carson, who had died from lung cancer at the age of sixty-nine on December 15, had been used to breaking barriers throughout her life. The only child of an unwed mother, Velma Porter, who had spent her life doing backbreaking work cleaning the homes, cooking the meals, and caring for children of wealthy families on Indianapolis’s north side, Carson had grown up to become only the third African American woman to serve in the Indiana House of Representatives and the first black woman, along with Katie Hall of Gary, to be elected to the Indiana Senate.

After eighteen years of service with the Democratic Party in the state legislature, Carson left her secure seat to run and win election in 1990 as Center Township trustee in charge of poor relief in the heart of Marion County. Faced with an office $20 million in debt, Carson instituted anti-fraud procedures and a workfare program whereby able-bodied relief recipients were required to perform community service in return for assistance. “I am more sympathetic for a little old lady whose Social Security didn’t come in, and she can’t pay her heating bill,” Carson told a reporter, “than I am for people who are determined to live off the system.” These efforts helped move the office into the twenty-first century and resulted in a $6 million surplus and won for Carson her second honor as “Woman of the Year” from the Indianapolis Star.

In 1996, at the urging of her mentor, longtime Indianapolis congressman Andrew Jacobs Jr., Carson ran for national office herself, becoming only the second African American woman from Indiana to serve in Congress, and the first woman and the first African American to represent Indianapolis in Washington, D.C. As a fiercely liberal representative for Indiana’s Seventh Congressional District, a district with a slight Democratic edge and a decided majority of white voters, she fought off numerous challenges over the years from a variety of Republican opponents. Carson won six terms in office with the help of a dedicated group of supporters who wielded red and white campaign signs emblazoned with the slogan that came to symbolize their adoration for their candidate: “I ♥ Julia.” She proved time and time again, noted one Hoosier political expert, that she could “bring people to the polls who ordinarily may not participate in the political process.”

Upon Carson’s death there were some prominent local officeholders who credited their careers to the assistance and encouragement they received from her (including longtime legislator William Crawford and former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson). A proven vote getter in Center Township, Carson aided the Democratic Party by attracting inner-city Marion County residents to the polls, aiding the winning efforts of gubernatorial candidate Frank O’Bannon in 1996 and Peterson’s mayoral contest in 1999. Before her own tries for public office, however, Carson had maintained a healthy skepticism for politics and politicians. In her mind, those involved in the system were often dishonest and could not be trusted to do what was right for people in need. “I felt that people in office would make themselves appear to be superhuman during election time,” she noted. “But after they got elected they’d forget about everyone else and try to get what they could for themselves.”

Carson’s attitudes about politicians were altered by her work as a legislative assistant to Jacobs, who in 1965 hired the divorced mother of two children away from her job as a secretary with the United Auto Workers Local 550. “We just had a lot of rapport,” Jacobs remembered. “I liked what she had to say, particularly the way she said it. And I said, ‘Boy, there’s an awful lot of brains in that large head.’” Carson found Jacobs to be “a rare kind of politician,” as he displayed a real interest in his constituents. “And I thought that perhaps those qualities could be transferred to someone like me,” Carson said. She never saw herself as being in the mold of a prototypical politician, with “fathers who were professors and mothers who were teachers.” Still, she believed she could be a role model for those who wanted a better life for themselves—one of the reasons she chose to remain living in a neighborhood nicknamed Dodge City for its violence so that children would have “someone strong to identify with.”

In her attempts for state and national office, Carson engaged in a down-to-earth style of campaigning. She became known for wearing big hats and her unpretentious speaking style, calling people “baby” and older women “mom.” Until her death, Carson lived in the same house and neighborhood she had lived in before her rise to political prominence and refused to obtain an unlisted telephone number. Her ability to connect with average citizens impressed political pundits. “She’d walk up to somebody—I’ve seen this at the polls—and even if she didn’t know them, she appeared to, and they responded as if they knew her. And this was not just political savvy; it was, for want of a better term, ‘street smarts,’” noted Brian Vargas, a former pollster and frequent commentator on politics in central Indiana.

Carson also made sure that her congressional office paid attention to what was occurring in her district, including sending letters of condolence to families whose loved ones had died and paying visits to those who were sick and in the hospital. While in Congress, Carson fought for legislation to expand a program to offer children health insurance, sponsored a measure to ensure veterans who completed prison terms would still have the right to vote, and supported a bill to help individuals and families in danger of becoming homeless. Perhaps her crowning achievement came in 1999 when she convinced Congress to pass legislation honoring Rosa Parks, the African American woman who had refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, with a Congressional Gold Medal. Carson also opposed the war in Iraq, indicating the 2003 invasion was to protect U.S. oil interests in the region. “Julia for those with no voice,” said Dan Parker, Indiana Democratic Party chairman. “She fought for those who had lost hope in the system. She fought for and never lost sight of what she believed in.”

Carson’s crusade for the disadvantaged was fueled in part by her own humble beginnings growing up in the Haughville section of Indianapolis, where she lived in an African American neighborhood of mostly poor families. For a role model, Carson could look to her mother, someone who worked hard all her life to give her daughter the opportunities she never had. “She taught me about hard work, spirituality, and trust,” Carson said, adding that her mother also educated her through both word and deed that “great pride can come from work well done, even if it was no well-compensated.” 

Despite the underprivileged surroundings, there existed a strong sense of community in Haughville. Because her mother often had to be away from home when she was working, Carson had to rely on her neighbors to help take care of her. If she found herself at a friend’s home at mealtime, or if one of her friends happened to be at her house when the dinner hour arrived, another plate was set on the table with no questions asked. “Every woman on the block or in the rooming houses where we sometimes lived was my ‘auntie’ and every man was my ‘uncle,’” Carson recalled. “Our neighbors were truly like family.” This lesson from her younger days followed her throughout her political career, as Carson held the view that “loving all our neighbors is not just a personal obligation, it is an obligation that should be the guiding force behind the work of all elected officials and of the government itself.”

In addition to battling her impoverished upbringing, Carson had to contend with the endemic racism of the time. As African Americans flocked to large northern cities following World War I, they hoped to leave behind the Jim Crow-restricted life in the South for better living and working conditions in the North. They were often met, however, with low paying, menial jobs and substandard housing in segregated neighborhoods. That was the case for Carson and her mother when they moved from Louisville to Indianapolis in 1939. Although Carson grew up in a city that by 1930 had a population that was 12 percent African American, she and others of her race could not sit down and eat with white customers in local restaurants, register as guests in downtown hotels, or swim in public pools. If she had the money to see a movie, Carson would have had to sit in a segregated seating area in the theater’s balcony. If she wanted the thrill of a ride on a rollercoaster, she would not be admitted to the city’s entertainment showcase, Riverside Amusement Park, which was restricted to “whites only patronage.” The unfairness of segregation was also magnified during trips she made to visit her grandmother in Tennessee. Although Carson could sit wherever she wanted to when she boarded the train left Indianapolis, she and other African American passengers had to retreat to a segregated car when the train crossed the Kentucky border. And when the train stopped, Carson could not use the clean restrooms reserved for white patrons at stations, but had to relieve herself in rank outhouses.

Carson also received her education in a segregated school system where educational officials “jealously protected” the separation of white and black students. Instead of assigning black students to neighborhood white schools when her elementary school burned down, school officials sent buses each morning to haul Carson and her classmates “to an abandoned and condemned school building where makeshift classrooms were arranged,” she recalled. Carson also attended a segregated high school, Crispus Attucks. Indianapolis Public School leaders had established Crispus Attucks in 1927 to keep black students from mixing with their white counterparts, but they unintentionally created—despite hand-me-down equipment—a beneficial environment for learning. Carson noted that as a student she received instruction from “the best and brightest African American teachers who were not allowed to teach in white schools. At Attucks, we had more teachers with doctorate degrees than the rest of the city’s high schools combined.”

Although Carson endured both racism and sexism growing up, including watching her beloved mother suffer abuse from a man she married while they lived in Indianapolis, she could always count on the support of her teachers and neighbors to support her and encourage her to believe that she could “do anything I set my mind to.” Not everyone, however, was so kind. Perhaps her greatest battle came from overcoming the shame of being an illegitimate child. “Labels like this encourage generalization,” Carson noted, “such as the notion that a child born out of wedlock is not likely to amount to anything. Labels carry a stigma that can convince people that they indeed will not be able to succeed.” Her experiences with the labels attached to her because of her birth status, race, and gender made Carson “acutely aware of the injustice of labeling and discrimination of any kind.”

The lessons Carson learned in life followed her throughout her subsequent political career—a career she undertook with reluctance. Although she received some early political training working for Jacobs, Carson did not jump at the opportunity to seek public office. Instead, Jacobs, who faced a tough 1972 re-election campaign in a gerrymandered district that favored his Republican opponent and friend William Hudnut  (Jacobs came back two years later to defeat Hudnut), had to work hard to talk Carson into seeking for a seat in the Indiana House to represent District 45, which included all of Marion County’s Center Township. “She thought it would be disloyal to our friendship because it would take her away from my campaign, which was a campaign of futility that year,” said Jacobs, who remembered sitting with Carson for over an hour at her home convincing her to run. Carson recalled Jacobs finally told her: “Come on, kid. This is the time to step up.” 

Carson’s unwillingness to enter politics came in part from a fear of public speaking fueled by a stutter she had developed during her elementary school years and from which she overcame through the help of her school’s principal. She also had to endure often ill health from high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, and other ailments, as well the failure of an Indianapolis dress shop she owned that caused her great financial hardships for many years.

Once she entered the political arena, Carson discovered that voters viewed her as someone who would always represent their interests to the best of her abilities. In her first run for the state legislature, Carson was the leading vote getter in a Democratic primary field that included eleven candidates, as well as leading a Democratic sweep of the three open seats in the general election. As she explained to a local reporter when asked why she was running for office, Carson believed her years working with Jacobs gave her insight into people’s problems and how to assist them. “I’m not saying I could change things,” she noted, “but I could be someone who is interested in helping people.” 

After two successful terms as a state representative, Carson took on and defeated an incumbent Democratic state senator, Marie T. Lauck, and went on to smash her Republican challenger by approximately sixteen thousand votes to become one of the first two black women elected to such a position. Despite these achievements, Carson faced some of the same prejudices she had endured as a child, even being mistaken for a maid by the doorkeeper of the Indiana House when she first tried to enter the chamber to represent her district.

Carson defied the odds again in 1996 when she won the Tenth Congressional District seat vacated by the retiring Jacobs. Although Carson could count on Jacobs support in the primary, she faced some tough opponents in a nine-candidate field, including Ann DeLaney, former chairwoman of the Indiana Democratic Party. DeLaney had the edge when it came to raising money, but Carson did what she would continue to do in subsequent races—win on the ground by getting her voters energized and out to the voting booth. “We didn’t have the money to buy a lot of publicity, and so we did it with lots of grass-roots people,” Carson explained at the time, “and that’s what made the difference.” In the fall, she defeated her Republican opponent, fellow former Indiana legislator Virginia Blankenbaker for the first of her six consecutive terms in Congress. The race was not without incident. During an appearance with Blankenbaker before the Indianapolis Bar Association, the candidates took questions from audience members who had written their queries on index cards. One of the questions Carson received asked: “Do you give bottles of whiskey to your voters?” Ignoring the ethnic slur, Carson went to the microphone and quietly responded, “No.” Later, she admitted to Jacobs that she had “never felt so alone.”

Although at first hesitant to enter the political fray, Carson became a master at seizing the spotlight from her opponents during sometimes bitter and contentious campaigns. In 2002 seeking a fourth term in Congress, she faced a tough fight from her GOP challenger Brose McVey, a former aide to Hoosier political heavyweights Dan Quayle and Dan Coats. The district had changed since Carson’s first election, as the 2000 census had eliminated one of Indiana’s ten congressional districts, causing the remaining districts to expand to include new territory and new voters. Renumbered as the Seventh Congressional District, the area represented by Carson had more than a hundred thousand new constituents, many of whom had been used to having a conservative Republican, Dan Burton, as their congressman. Sensing a potential upset, the Republican National Committee targeted the race, offering money and other support to McVey. The GOP candidate had also won the backing of an area media giant, the Indianapolis Star. The newspaper’s editorial board endorsed McVey’s candidacy and a poll taken shortly before the election showed Carson with only a slim lead of one percentage point.

Carson turned the tables on her opponent during a debate at a Kiwanis Club on Indianapolis’s north side. She refused to be on the same stage with McVey, accusing him of waging the most negative campaign she had ever seen in her years of politics, and storming out of a planned debate. “If I seem rather upset,” Carson told the stunned crowd, “you are looking at someone who is extremely hurt by this campaign. I don’t think I have every in my life seen the political decay, the lowest common denominator that has been applied by my Republican opponent in this particular race. I don’t feel comfortable being in the same room with him.” Although McVey termed Carson’s action as a “staged act of righteous indignation not warranted by reality,” the move roused the congresswoman’s supporters into action. Carson also took advantage of a glitch with a voting machine on election day that failed to register her vote, raising a fuss that was caught on camera by local broadcasters. “She played that like a drum,” recalled pollster Vargas. “‘They’re keeping Julia from voting!’ It was on all the news stations, first thing in the morning. And this may have galvanized her troops.” Carson captured the election with approximately 53 percent of the vote.

Facing another tight race in 2006 from Indianapolis businessman and former marine Eric Dickerson, an African American, Carson, during a meeting with the Indianapolis Star’s editorial board, disclosed information about Dickerson’s arrest in 1991 on charges of domestic abuse involving his wife and daughter. Carson, who interceded on her mother’s behalf as a child when she experienced beatings from a spouse, noted that Dickerson had “been running as Mr. Righteous, Mr. Righteous, when in fact, he beat his wife up to a pulp.” Dickerson angrily disputed the charge, noting that the case had been dismissed and his wife and daughter had declined to testify and accused Carson of conducting a dirty campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee subsequently paid for and distributed fliers in the district attacking Dickerson for the alleged abuse and accusing him of lying about the issue. Carson expressed anger with the DCCC about the fliers and said she had nothing to do with their distribution. On election day, Carson had prevailed again, winning by approximately ten thousand votes.

In seeking support in every nook and cranny in her district for the causes and candidates she believed in, Carson brought her own unique style to political campaigns. One local reporter noted that the congresswoman was “part mother hen, part circus ringmaster, part best girlfriend, and part master political operative.” To see how Carson worked her magic on voters, the Indianapolis Star sent one of its reporters, R. Joseph Gelarden, to follow the congresswoman as she stumped on behalf of Democratic mayoral candidate Peterson on November 2, 1999. That morning, Carson, wearing a floppy hat, sat at her kitchen table in her home equipped with three cell phones and a landline instrument arranging transportation for voters who needed rides to their polling places. “You got to maximize your neighbors,” Carson told Gelarden. “Know them. Talk to them. A lot of them don’t know how to vote. They are intimidated by the process. But they don’t want you to know they are afraid. So you got to talk to them. Energize them to vote and tell them not to be intimidated.” It also helped, she added, to “know everyone’s phone number.”

After completing her phone calls, Carson left her home and visited a polling place at a local school, glad-handing poll workers before moving on to meet with Peterson and his family at a community center at Thirtieth and Clifton streets, where she introduced the mayoral hopeful to voters by saying, “This is my friend Bart Peterson. Vote for him, won’t you?” When she learned via a call on one of her cell phones that turnout was light in two heavily Democratic wards, she turned to local Democratic officials who were with her to coordinate dispatching sound trucks to encourage people to get out and vote. Carson even called her lawyer, Lacy Johnson, to arrange a meeting back at her home. “I’ll be there at 1,” she told Johnson. “I want those trucks on the road by 1:15. We can do that, darlin’, can’t we?”Carson finished off the afternoon by returning home to a table in her front hall loaded down by pans filled with food to take to poll workers at her home ward. With that task accomplished and the polls beginning to be crowded with people going to the polls after their work day had been completed, the satisfied Carson simply said: “Let’s go home.”

Carson’s final years in politics were filled with uncertainty. Bouts of illness caused her to miss several votes in Congress, a situation that caused fueled speculation with the media and political insiders that she might not run again. In August 2007, after her grandson, Andre, had announced that he intended to run for a seat on the Indianapolis City-County Council, Carson indicated she would run for a seventh term office. “I like this kind of stuff, and I like to go out and talk to people about it,” she told reporters. Carson’s decision was met with approval by Indiana Democrats. That fall, however, Carson, who had been using a wheelchair to get around in Congress and had missed 13 percent of the 923 votes held since January, requested and received a leave of absence from her work due to a leg infection near a spot where a vein had been removed for double bypass heart surgery in 1996.


On Saturday, November 24, 2007, Carson stunned her supporters by revealing she had terminal lung cancer. In a statement released to the media, she noted: “In the late summer of 2007, Congress granted me a leave of absence because of my leg infection. My wonderful doctor cured the leg, and I went into rehabilitation, planning to be back in Washington shortly. Then the second shoe fell—heavily. My doctor discovered lung cancer. It had gone into remission years before, but it was back with a terminal vengeance. Therefore, I take this occasion to express my loving and literally eternal gratitude to my friends, including family, constituents and colleagues, who have given me so much love, support and trust. God bless our beloved country.”

Just three weeks after her shocking announcement, Carson died on Saturday, December 15, 2007, at her Indianapolis home on North Park Avenue with her family at her side. As she had in life, Carson touched the lives of a diverse group of people. At her funeral at the Eastern Star Church, approximately two thousand gathered to pay their respects, including such disparate figures as longtime Republican U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar and leader of the Nation of Islam Louis Farrakhan. Speaker after speaker praised Carson for her kindness, her ability to remain connected to her constituents, and lifelong commitment to social justice.

Jacobs, who considered Carson to be his “little sister,” noted after her death that when pundits mentioned “Congresswoman Carson’s people,” they were referring to poor black residents of the Seventh Congressional District. “Rubbish,” Jacobs said. Carson’s people included everyone in her district, “regardless of physical or economic description.” After all, he added, the rich can be “treated unjustly by the federal government just as middle- and low-income citizens can. And wherever there was injustice, this Lincoln-like lady was there to redress it.” Carson’s political philosophy, Jacobs said, could be culled from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they who thirst for justice.”