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Final Liftoff: WV town celebrates last Rocket Boys Festival

Rocket Boy Homer Hickam, left, and technician Henry Bobbin launch a model rocket at the final Rocket Boys Festival Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, at the Exhibition Coal Mine and Youth Museum in Beckley, W.Va. (Brad Davis/The Register-Herald via AP)

By JORDAN NELSON, The Register-Herald undefined
BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — Sept. 28 was a sunny, warm fall day. The air felt crisp as the occasional breeze of wind would blow. It was, in other words, a perfect day to celebrate the end of an era, an event that has taken place in Beckley for the past seven years.
The 20th annual Rocket Boys Festival kicked off its final scheduled event that day.
The book “Rocket Boys” was written after Homer Hickam wrote a short article about his life as a teenager growing up in the town of Coalwood, W.Va., and his aspirations to be a rocket scientist. The article, called “The Big Creek Missile Agency,” was written for Air & Space Magazine in 1994. When the article received a large amount of praise, Hickam was asked to write a book, which led to the publication of “Rocket Boys” in 1998.
In 1999, a movie based on the book, called “October Sky,” premiered nationwide.
The book has been translated into eight languages and is the most read book in the U.S. public school system.
The first 13 Rocket Boy Festivals were in Coalwood in McDowell County, but the event moved to Beckley in 2012. Festival Director Scott Hill said the Rocket Boys, all in their 70s, agreed to five additional years when the event changed location, but have surpassed that agreement, making this the eighth year they’ve come to Beckley.
“This is the last scheduled Rocket Boys Festival,” Hickam told The Register-Herald. “I mean, a special event might come up in the future wrapped around the Rocket Boys, but we just probably won’t schedule it through the last week of September like we usually do.
“We love this festival, and we enjoy coming here so much. We wanted to go out on a high note, so that’s why we decided to make this the last one, but the best one yet,” he said.
While the main event of the festival consisted of launching a ton of make-shift rockets, Hickam said it was also the best one yet because as he was signing copies of his book “Rocket Boys,” Roy Lee Cooke, another Rocket Boy, never left his side.
“Which I think is pretty special. He’s someone hard to keep track of,” Hickam joked.
Hickam said transferring the festival to Beckley from Coalwood was one of the best decisions they ever could have made. With the interstate system and lodging available, he said more and more people have visited Beckley annually to attend the event.
The event has also taken place annually at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, another perk for the festival, Hickam said.
“Having it near the Exhibition Coal Mine has really helped in telling the Rocket Boys story,” he said. “We grow up in the coal fields, and we get to share what that was all about with everyone that comes here.”
Hickam said he believes the festival has had an incredible run and hopes all the students he has spoken with over the years have been encouraged to work hard to catch their dreams and live a life they’ve always wanted.
“We’ve really tried our best to instill that in these children,” he said.
Not only was Saturday the final Rocket Boys Festival, it was a day to honor Quentin Wilson, who passed away Aug. 30. Wilson was one of the six Rocket Boys.
As children lined the sidewalk and parking lot near the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, a large American flag waved above them. Before the children took turns launching their rockets, Hickam and Cooke launched one in honor of Wilson.
The rocket was black, with bright orange wings and nozzle. On it, the name “Quentin Wilson” was etched. Both Hickam and Cooke also signed the rocket.
“This day is dedicated to one of the six Rocket Boys, Quentin,” Hickam explained to the crowd. “He is truly missed, and if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, Quentin was the smart one. He was until the day he died.”
Hickam added Wilson was the one who taught him calculus, so he could design his first rocket nozzle. “He was a special guy, and I’d like you to think of him as we launch this rocket.”
He encouraged children and their families in the crowd, if they know someone who is special, or different, to just remember, that person is probably another “Quentin.”
The crowd cheered, “Five, four, three, two, one, for Quentin,” as the rocket soared.
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Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com