Saturday, February 24, 2007

What a coincidence....

In 1987, I moved back to my parents' house from college and began looking for a job. With no real skills for the business world except a little bit of time working in Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Audiovisual Library and a little bit of time working for a Richmond-market easy listening radio station, I took the most interesting job I found -- administrative assistant to the coordinator of NASA's Teacher in Space program, a program of the Educational Affairs Division. I quickly found myself surrounded by interesting scientific educational programs -- science fairs and orbiter-naming projects and elementary education curriculum development and educational technology, as well as regular involvement with the Teacher in Space Ambassadors, the semifinalists from each state who continued to serve as educational outreach to schools and students, and the Teacher in Space Designee Barbara Morgan, who is currently an astronaut awaiting shuttle flight STS-118, scheduled for later this year.

Sitting in what I remember as a dark and very full office was a woman I didn't realize had influenced me as she did until much later. Muriel Thorne was deeply involved in science fairs, interacting personally with many science fair contestants with aerospace projects, and leading the project to name the shuttle orbiter which would replace Challenger. Students from around the country submitted names, proposals, and presentatios, and I remember Muriel bursting forth from her office with a well-folded piece of wide-ruled notebook paper to share the latest brilliant idea to come in from a young student. My favorite was absolutely the child who adamantly recommended the name DEMOLISHER. But, you know, misspelled. And I think the letter was in crayon, and included a picture of a rocket ship with huge orange and yellow flames bursting from huge boosters. Oh, she laughed at some of the ideas and their presentations, but with so much love and encouragement for those children....

Muriel wrote. Or more specifically, Muriel TYPED, on an ancient manual typewriter. Admittedly, this was before the office had anything resembling personal computers, much less a network, and I can remember cussing madly when I made a typ-o on the IBM Selectrix on a form in triplicate for the Administrator's office, because you couldn't use the correction feature on the duplicates so you had to start over again. We had a Wang word processor that used diskettes that were about the size of a medium pizza that we used for drafts, but in many cases, originals still came out of that Selectrix, and to this day I miss the sound and sensation of those keys. But Muriel wasn't ready to let go of her manual typewriter, and I thought that she must have the strongest fingers on earth. The slapping sound of manual keys hitting paper came out of her office, and manuscripts emerged; I helped find references for photographs and get permission for their use, and with no Internet or email, it was a time-consuming process. I was proud when that draft went to publications, but had left that job by the time it was released as a book.

I left NASA after 2 years and the realization that I wasn't going to find a position there that didn't require me to transition to federal employment as a secretary, and then begin moving up the GS scale. Instead, I moved to a government contractor, working on the Navy's Class B RADAR program -- not nearly as interesting, but I no longer had to answer phones or make coffee, and I was glad for the advancement.

It's been 20 years since I started that job, and 3 months ago I again changed jobs, quickly found myself traveling to a client's office in the District of Columbia, and to my amazement, it was the building across the street from the building that in 1987 housed both the Department of Education and NASA Headquarters. I had lunch in the same sandwich shop where I'd eaten as a starving 20-something, and thought about that first job. On the way back to my Virginia office, I thought about the people I'd known and lost touch with, and my mind kept coming back to Muriel. I'd seen her a few years ago at the memorial service for Pam Mountjoy, who had been my manager at NASA, and she'd sent me a copy of that book we worked on so many years before, but we hadn't stayed in contact, and I sat there on the Metro, wondering what Muriel was doing.

And then I looked across the aisle of the Metro car. Could it be? Was it possible? Not 4 feet away from me sat Muriel.

I reached over and touched her arm gently and asked, "Muriel?" Clearly surprised at my touch, she looked over at me, and I saw recognition in her eyes. "Rebecca? I can't believe it -- I was just thinking about you!"

We had a two-stop fond reunion, and I pressed my new business card into her hand before she got off the train. She promised to call -- we'd get together for lunch and catch up. I was numb with disbelief and delight. She waved as the car left the station. Two stops later, I realized that I had gotten on the wrong line -- I needed an Orange Line car and was on a Blue Line car. If I hadn't made that mistake, if I hadn't stopped at Starbucks for a cup of coffee, I would never have seen her.

It's been since December, and I finally heard from her this week. Health issues and travel over the holidays stopped her from calling earlier, but when the weather's warmer, we've made a date for lunch. I can't wait to tell her, as I'm sure she's heard from so many students she's helped during the years, how much she influenced me, and how happy I am for having had her in my life all those years ago. I write today largely because of her. Everyone should have as much impact on the world as this one quiet woman with a loud typewriter.


Singaporeangmo said...

Hi, my name is Tom Weinland. My mother was friends with Muriel Thorne in college at Indiana University. Muriel would visit and stay with us in Indiana every year in conjunction with the IU alumni celebrations. We all have fond memories. My sister had been keeping in touch with her through xmas cards etc. Recently, we have lost track of her and her mail is returned as no such address. We have found no obituary. Could you please help us? Maybe you could reach out to someone who knows her in Washington. We can think of only a few other living friends other than the great Judi Dench. Did you know they are friends? We would really appreciate it. My email is

Mike Harris said...

For anyone who finds this entry in the course of searching for Muriel Thorne, formerly of NASA and the National Gallery, I'm sorry to say that Muriel passed away on August 6, 2013.