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Museum honors teacher who led Rocket Club at Josey High School

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It was 1964 in segregated Augusta when a group of young men from the new black high school in town gathered outside to launch rockets they had built high into the air.

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Members of the 1966 Rocket Club at Josey High School pose for the school annual.  Special
Special
Members of the 1966 Rocket Club at Josey High School pose for the school annual.

They called it Rocket Club, and it was a place of innovation and creativity, a refuge for self-described nerds and curious T.W. Josey High School students in the heat of the space race.

They were led by Rosa T. Beard, an educator known for a half-century of work with the Rosa T. Beard Debutante Club for girls, but she was also mentor for boys, especially those in the Rocket Club.

"She saw the potential of those young men. She squeezed every bit of good out of them to try and propel them to their greatest potential," said Mallory K. Millender, who taught alongside Beard at Josey and is now a historian and professor at Paine College, which he and Beard attended.

Beard accepted an award Tuesday at The Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History recognizing a lifetime of service to the Augusta community.

The standing-room only crowd included a handful of former students and Rocket Club members, many of whom went on to pursue careers in science and government, becoming community pillars like Beard. The club's alumni include an ambassador, ministers and a Superior Court judge. They became scientists, doctors and military officers. One worked at Cape Canaveral and another for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

They tinkered with rockets well before Josey, as early as 1958, as students of A.R. Johnson Junior High. But it wasn't until Beard became their adviser in 1962 and Josey opened in 1964 that the program took off.

BEFORE THEN, THE boys built model rockets with pre-manufactured engines. Under Beard's influence, they began to design and build their own engines and make their own rocket fuel.

"During the early '60s, aeronautics was the going thing. It launched us into so many areas of science," said Frank Johnson, a member who now lives in Lithonia, Ga., and is a sales manager for Globe Chemical Co.

They explored biology after another student, Joseph Hobbs, suggested experiments with mice, which were placed in the payload of rockets, near the nose.

"We figured NASA could do it. Why couldn't we?" Johnson said.

They lost a few, but plenty parachuted back to safety after the launch.

Hobbs is now chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Medical College of Georgia.

In the club's heyday, the medical college loaned albino Swiss mice for the experiments. The boys would travel to the college after school to run tests and teach the mice to run mazes. They collected blood samples and measured glucose levels to determine the effect of acceleration -- such as that of a rocket launch -- would have.

They toured Cape Canaveral and Lockheed Martin Marietta, an aeronautics facility, on field trips. Some of the scientists and engineers they met were black, Hobbs said.

"I began to say I want to be like them," he said. "We realized how fortunate we were. We had the benefit of many teachers who were extremely good at advocating science education for minorities."

For a while, the group launched rockets weekly from the field where Josey's stadium now stands. Their greatest accomplishment was a 6-foot rocket that flew 1,500 feet toward space.

The boys showed it off at science fairs, winning local and national prizes. They were a competitive group in everything, from marbles to basketball, and especially science, Hobbs said.

"Mrs. Beard drove that competitiveness by getting us involved in science fairs. Because of what she did, and the unique collection of kids who were there, and the fact that we had this place called Rocket Club to gather, we were able to do unordinary things," he said. "We perceived ourselves as average, but we knew how to work very hard."

THEIR FIRST YEAR of competition, the group was unable to participate in the local science fair, which had yet to be integrated. They traveled to Fort Valley, Ga., instead.

"Something funny happened," Hobbs said. "We won."

The group, however, was too young to participate in the International Science Fair. Beard and others raised the money for the boys to attend anyway, just for the experience.

By their senior year, the local fair had been integrated and the Rocket Club won there, too. They competed at the International Fair that year and won an award from the U.S. Patent Office for the most innovative project in biology.

"People had the perception that kids from these neighborhoods just weren't smart," Hobbs said. "It wasn't true. What they lacked were opportunities."

Johnson went on to attend Morehouse College. He's now a minister, serving as an elder of the 3,000-member Strong Hold Christian Church in Lithonia, Ga.

Johnny Roberts, a club member living in Waynesboro, Ga., joined the military after high school. He learned to speak Arabic and French and traveled through Africa as an interpreter for then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Richmond County Superior Court Judge Carl Brown was also a member of the Rocket Club.

So was Larry Palmer, who went on to become U.S. Ambassador to Honduras. He now heads the Inter-American Foundation in Washington, D.C., which funds development in Latin American countries and the Caribbean.

Jonas Isaac studied at Emory University alongside Palmer. He went on to work in the vertical assembly building at Kennedy Space Center, a building he toured on the Rocket Club field trip years earlier. He now works as a civilian senior Army intelligence analyst at Fort Gordon.

"It's incredible looking back," he said. "The effort Mrs. Beard put out as a teacher is what made a difference with the debutantes and the Rocket Club. She was just an inspiring person. It was a perfect class and a perfect teacher coming together at the perfect time."

A few Rocket Club members -- Pamela Weston, Joe Carr and Freddie Welcher -- left Josey and the club to transfer to Academy of Richmond County the first year school choice was available.

"It was difficult, but integration took precedence," said Welcher, who teaches computer science at Augusta Technical College. "It was worth the sacrifice. Beard was always clear that what we were doing was about more than science. It was more than rockets."

The club dissolved a few years after most of its founders graduated in 1966. At any given time, it had up to 15 members, Millender said, and probably no more than 25 alumni.

Beard, in the meantime, grew the debutante club, which continues to operate in Augusta.

She is 88 and lives in Atlanta with one of her four children. She retired in 1983 after 41 years of teaching.

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springstorm
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springstorm 02/24/10 - 03:53 am
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Amazing! We need activities

Amazing! We need activities for young people like that now, to promote interest in Science and Math. We're way behind other countries in these areas.

patriciaschaack
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patriciaschaack 02/24/10 - 04:44 am
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Thank you Mrs. Beard. It was

Thank you Mrs. Beard. It was great seeing you get the honor. I was not a debutant but was in one of your chemistry classes in 1965. In 1966, I moved on to George P. Butler High School to be one of the first to integrate Butler High. You were an inspiration to my life. Your class encouraged me to excel and I am so thankful that I had the chance to be under your tutelage. Today, I am a successful writer and coach, totally fluent in the German language and working in the international business community in Hanau, Germany.
GOD bless you.
Sincerely,
Patricia Anne Pierce-garcia Schaack
Grosskrotzenburg, Germany

Petey Aitchess
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Petey Aitchess 02/24/10 - 06:31 am
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A great woman and a great

A great woman and a great story! Thank you for putting it together, Kelly.

Notreally
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Notreally 02/24/10 - 08:34 am
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Wow Mrs. Beard, we use to

Wow Mrs. Beard, we use to LINE up to get into her classes, LITERALLY at Josey back in the day. This lady really was an educator, and to be in any of her classes back then as a student you were looked upon as if YOU thought YOU were something, with your high and mighty self LOL. Everybody wanted to take her class. We use to walk around after getting our semester schedules and ask each other, who did you get and if you said Mrs. Beard some students would get upset because they didn't get in her classes as it would fill up and close quickly LOL. This is a great article, thanks Mrs. Beard for everything you taught us at Josey, we love you.

onlynaugusta
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onlynaugusta 02/24/10 - 08:58 am
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Augusta needs more leadership

Augusta needs more leadership like Mrs. Rosa Beard. Her legacy will live forever. Rosa Beard is far and few. We don't have leaders like her anymore. She is a great woman. Educators today are not the same. Our youth are destroying themselves!

jerryv31
20
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jerryv31 02/24/10 - 09:03 am
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Great woman and an

Great woman and an inspiration for others to follow!

livinginthebuckle
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livinginthebuckle 02/24/10 - 11:07 am
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and not a pair of saggy pants

and not a pair of saggy pants in sight.

smitty1861
4
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smitty1861 02/24/10 - 04:29 pm
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1964 - Josey students shoot

1964 - Josey students shoot rockets with eachother
2010 - Josey students shoot guns at eachother

corgimom
19268
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corgimom 02/24/10 - 04:46 pm
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Joseph Hobbs and his brother

Joseph Hobbs and his brother Calvin, two of Augusta's most brilliant doctors. Augusta is lucky to have both of them.

lifelongresidient
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lifelongresidient 02/24/10 - 04:49 pm
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living & smitty, i couldn't

living & smitty, i couldn't have said it better myself...but spring it's not the amout. type or number of programs tht matters...black children searched out for, yearned for, and were educated because number 1; it was stressed int the home and there were fewer single parent families, gov't housing project and section 8 didn't exist...the key was parental involement pure and simple....1 +1 still equals 2, josey still sits were it is today, but now in the black communities education for the most part is a way to "act whilte" and be ridiculed and attacked, as opposed to being held in high esteem

johnston.cliff
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johnston.cliff 02/24/10 - 05:46 pm
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Did Ms Beard comment on what

Did Ms Beard comment on what the subsidy programs have done to so many generations of blacks? In 1964 the change was made, but it was 15 more years before we began to see the results of government intervention.

roberts2513
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roberts2513 02/24/10 - 07:24 pm
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What a teacher or should I

What a teacher or should I say MENTOR and for all the right reasons. It's John not Johnny from the article sure proud to see the doors my fellow classmates opened and continues to strive forward on. My twenty plus years with the USMC and twenty years with Wal-Mart management has continued to let me know we can make a different. To the guys out there seek out those DADS IN ACTION group it time to give and instill some positive out look for our young ones today. SEMPER FI

soldout
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soldout 02/12/11 - 11:54 pm
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When I look at this

When I look at this achievement I have to think did integration help or hurt the black students? I am not asking if it was fair or the right thing to do but has it helped or hurt. Some times we do better when we have to prove we can.

mdb67
9
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mdb67 02/13/11 - 05:47 pm
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Awesome story!!

Awesome story!!

QuitBnoz
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QuitBnoz 02/27/13 - 11:46 am
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First Female Member of the Rocket Club

The young lady to the far right, Jessie Viola Thompson, was the very first female member of the Rocket Club. She adored Mrs. Beard and Mr. Millender. She often commented about how intelligent and motivating they both were. R.I.P. Jessie. 5/16/49-2/23/13

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