Original 'Rocket Boy' urges kids to participate

March 25, 2002|BY STACEY DANZUSO

Roy Lee Cooke, the winner of the 1960 National Science Fair, had one simple message for the 700 Franklin County students who entered projects in this year's local science fair: "The prize doesn't make a difference, it's participation."

Cooke and five other students at Big Creek High School in Coalwood, W.Va., spent three years building bigger and better model rockets before they finally had one sophisticated enough to win the gold and silver awards at the National Science Fair. Their endeavors were profiled in the book "Rocket Boys," and later in the movie "October Sky."

Cooke shared his story with students and their parents Sunday during the closing of the 20th annual Franklin County Science and Technology Fair at Chambersburg Area Middle School.

The Rocket Boys' homemade rockets captured the country's attention as the Cold War was heating up and the Russians launched their first Sputnik satellite.


Cooke, now 60, said Sputnik played a role in their desire to build a rocket.

"It was an overwhelming incident in our life," he said. "It was like, 'Gosh, we're behind. What can we do?'"

Cooke was a founding member of the Big Creek Missile Agency, along with Homer "Sonny" Hickam, Quentin Wilson, Sherman Siers, Jimmie O'Dell Carroll and William Rose.

He said the earlier rockets were primitive.

"The ones we did in the beginning, and why I encourage oversight, were probably nothing more than pipe bombs," he said. "They blew up. As we progressed, we got them to fly."

Cooke said his experience with the science fair took him one step closer to a college education and ultimately a career as a banker. He told the students in the audience Sunday that their participation in the science fair would also put them ahead on the path to college.

"Something like this gives you confidence and prepares you to move ahead," he said.

Cooke said his teachers and mother were instrumental in his success.

"My mother never lost sight that somehow I had to go to college," he said.

After high school, Cooke said he went to Washington, D.C., to look for work and ended up with a job at a bank.

He began his college career at Concord College in Athens, W.Va., and finished at the University of Maryland. He is also a graduate of the American Institute of Banking in Washington, D.C. He retired from banking after 25 years and has been president of Carolina Domestic Coal for the past 16 years. He lives in South Carolina.

He said the Rocket Boys have stayed in contact over the years and were consulted in the writing of "October Sky," which introduced their efforts to a new generation of budding scientists.

Noel Kline, a science fair volunteer, asked Cooke about discrepancies between the movie and the truth.

The most obvious, Cooke said, was there were six boys involved but there were only four characters in the movie.

Another was a scene with Cooke's character being abused by his stepfather. Cooke said he did not even have a stepfather during the period of the Rocket Boys, but it was true that one of them was abused.

"Outside of that, the movie is pretty close to the truth," he said.

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