Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Contact: Dave Wellman, Director of Communications (304) 696-7153

Hickam to deliver address at Marshall’s commencement, join Hechler as latest honorary degree recipients

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Coalwood, W.Va., native Homer H. Hickam, Jr., author of the best-seller Rocket Boys: A Memoir, will deliver the commencement address at Marshall University’s 170th commencement, MU President Stephen J. Kopp announced today.

Commencement begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 5 at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in downtown Huntington.

Hickam will receive an honorary Doctor of Literature degree, and Dr. Ken Hechler, former longtime U.S. Congressman and West Virginia Secretary of State, will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the ceremony. Honorary degrees have been conferred to highly distinguished recipients since 1928 when Dwight Whitney Morrow and Guy Fielding Yost each received honorary Doctor of Laws degrees.

Kopp said Marshall University is honored to have Hickam as its latest commencement speaker.

“One of Homer Hickam’s friends from the Rocket Boys used to say, ‘A rocket won’t fly unless somebody lights the fuse,’ ” Kopp said. “A fuse was lit that stoked the ambition of Homer Hickam a long time ago in Coalwood, W.Va., and his career has been soaring ever since. From his days as a youngster building rockets in Coalwood, to his time as a NASA engineer and a best-selling author, Homer Hickam has lived a full, rewarding life and made all West Virginians proud. We look forward to hearing his inspirational story during commencement.” 

Hickam said he is excited about the opportunity to speak to Marshall’s 2007 graduating class. He was the featured speaker at Marshall’s Elizabeth Gibson Drinko Honors Convocation in April 2002.

“I am pleased and honored to give the commencement address for the 2007 graduating class of Marshall University,” Hickam said. “Marshall is known across the country for its excellence in education and West Virginians everywhere are proud of the university’s accomplishments.  Many of my friends from Big Creek High School went on to graduate from Marshall and all have gone on to lead successful, honorable lives.  I will give my remarks with them in mind.  I will also be receiving an honorary doctorate from Marshall which will certainly please my mom, and perhaps astonish some of my teachers at Big Creek.”

Rocket Boys: A Memoir is the story of Hickam’s life in Coalwood. It was selected by the New York Times as one of its Great Books of 1998 and was an alternate “Book-of-the-Month” selection for both the Literary Guild and Doubleday book clubs.

In February 1999, Universal Studios released its critically-acclaimed film October Sky, which was based on Rocket Boys. Delacorte Press, which published Rocket Boys, subsequently released a mass market paperback of Rocket Boys, re-titled October Sky, which reached the No. 1 position on the New York Times’ best-seller list.

Hickam graduated from Big Creek High School in 1960 and from Virginia Tech University in 1964 with a B.S. degree in Industrial Engineering. In 1967 and 1968, he served as a First Lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry Division in Vietnam, where he won the Army Commendation and Bronze Star medals.

Hickam has been a writer since 1969 after his return from Vietnam. His first book, Torpedo Junction, was published in 1989 by the Naval Institute Press and became a best-seller.

He also has written The Coalwood Way (2000), a memoir of his hometown; Sky of Stone (2001), which was a sequel to The Coalwood Way; and We Are Not Afraid: Strength and Courage from the Town That Inspired October Sky (2002).

During his writing career, Hickam was employed as an engineer for the U.S. Army Missile Command from 1971 to 1981. He began employment with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at Marshall Space Flight Center in 1981 as an aerospace engineer.

With NASA, Hickam worked in spacecraft design and crew training. His specialties included training astronauts on science payloads and extravehicular activities. He also trained astronaut crews for many Spacelab and Space Shuttle missions.

Hechler, who served on President Harry Truman’s White House staff from 1949 to 1953, attributes the idea to pursue his own political career to the influence of students in his first classes at Marshall. He first taught political science at Marshall College in 1957. He also taught at Columbia and Barnard colleges.

Recently, Hechler taught an honors class at Marshall on Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times. In conjunction with a biographical analysis of Truman’s career, the course studied certain American political institutions as reflected in Truman’s actions and decisions, including such issues as presidential leadership, public opinion and pressure groups, Congressional relations, White House staffing, foreign policy, controlling bureaucracy, political parties and campaigns. The course also explored substantive issues such as civil rights, price control, and health care.

“Fifty years ago when I first stepped into the classroom at what was then Marshall College, I was immediately hooked on the spirit of the students and faculty,” Hechler said. “That same indescribable spirit was there in greater measure on my recent return to teach a seminar for Yeager and Marshall Scholars.”

Hechler served as a U.S. Congressman from 1959 through 1977 and as Secretary of State in West Virginia from 1985 through 2001. Hechler is the author and editor of several books, including Working with Truman: A Personal Memoir of the White House Years, and Bridge at Remagen. He served as a major in the U.S. Army, and was awarded the Bronze Star and five battle stars.

In 1965, Hechler was the only member of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the historic Selma (Ala.) March.

Hechler is a native of Roslyn, N.Y., which is 14 miles from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s childhood home. He was named West Virginia Son of the Year in 1969. In 2001, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission awarded Hechler the Human Civil Rights Award “for advocating social change in the pursuit of equality for others.” He received the Harry S. Truman Award for Public Service in 2002, and was named Mountaineer of the Year for 2003 by Graffiti magazine.

For further information, contact:  Office of University Communications
Marshall University | 213 Old Main | Huntington, WV 25755-1090
Fax: (304) 696-3197