Oradell’s Hometown Astronaut
A Journey into Oradell
Oradell has been blessed to have had a number of distinguished citizens come from its midst.
Golfer Jim McGovern and football coach Bill Parcells are two that immediately come to mind. Ellsworth Kelly is another citizen of distinction from an earlier time whose story, among others, we hope to share with you in the future.
If you were around the area in the early 1960’s, however, one name would likely top your list as it did ours.
Walter Marty Schirra, Jr. (March 12, 1923 – May 3, 2007) was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts chosen for Project Mercury, America's first effort to put humans in space. Schirra was the fifth American and the ninth human to ride a rocket into space. He was the first person to go into space three times.
Wally Schirra was also a hometown Oradell boy.
He lived in Oradell for 18 years before he left to enter the Naval Academy in Annapolis on his way to becoming an astronaut. In local histories, he is described as “like any one of several hundred boys in our town, good boys, intelligent youngsters with normal curiosity about the world in general”.
In those same histories can be found quotes from teachers. In one, a kindergarten teaching assistant recalled Schirra as the “smiley type” of boy, a little on the chubby side, and a very nice youngster. Another teacher, a Math teacher, who became school Superintendent remembers him as a good math student and a nice boy, “He had a sort of shy smile and was most dependable”, she said.
Wally Schirra was born in Hackensack Hospital (as Oradell had no hospital of its own) and graduated Englewood’s Dwight Morrow High School (as River Dell would not come into existence until the late 1950’s).
He did attend grade school and graduated the Oradell Junior High School in 1937, where he was voted the “wittiest student” for what were described as his “wild and often ridiculous puns”.
He was a Boy Scout in Troop 36 and earned the rank of First Class.
Schirra came from an aviation family. His father, Walter M. Schirra, Sr., who later would become town engineer, had earlier gone to Canada from Italian Switzerland during World War I and earned his pilot rating. He later became a barnstormer. Schirra's mother, Florence Leach Schirra, went along on her husband's barnstorming tours and performed wing walking stunts. By the time he was 15, Wally was flying his father's airplane.
But according to our local history, though he was interested in model planes, neither his parents nor his friends felt that this was any particular indication of a future career. But a school classmate, Herb Landmann, once related to a UPI reporter researching the Astronaut’s hometown about Wally’s early interest in aviation:
“We lived with a block or two of each other in two or three different houses and hung around together. We’d spend Saturday afternoons in his living room on Maple Avenue talking and building model airplanes. I think being a flyer was on his mind. He was a good, natural, intelligent, average-type of guy. He was never voted the most likely to succeed. There were a number of people who really impressed me during our school days, but he wasn’t one of them. I admire Wally, of course. But I was surprised when they announced the seven original astronauts on TV. I turned to my wife and said “By gosh, one of ‘em is Wally!”
That day to which Herb Landmann referred was April 2, 1959, when Schirra was chosen as one of the original astronauts. He entered Project Mercury and was assigned the specialty area involving life support systems.
On October 3, 1962, Schirra piloted the Mercury-Atlas 8 (Sigma 7) on a six-orbit mission lasting 9 hours, 13 minutes, and 11 seconds. The capsule attained a velocity of 17,557 miles per hour (28,255 km/h) and an altitude of 175 statute miles (282 km), and landed within 4 miles (6.4 km) of the main Pacific Ocean recovery ship.
In becoming the only person to fly in all of America's first three space programs (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo), he logged a total of 295 hours and 15 minutes in space. This time included a stint on the Gemini mission, when attracted notoriety for playing "Jingle Bells" on a four-hole Hohner harmonica he had smuggled on board. A "Wally Schirra" commemorative model was later produced.
In later life, In 2005 Schirra co-authored the book The Real Space Cowboys (with Ed Buckbee), that was an account of the 'Mercury Seven' astronauts. He was a major contributor to the 2007 book In the Shadow of the Moon, which captured his final published thoughts on his life and career.
Wally Schirra was portrayed in film - The Right Stuff, and television, From the Earth to the Moon.
A USNS Wally Schirra (T-AKE-8)(Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship) was named after Schirra.
When Wally Schirra died in California in 2007, a memorial service was held at a national cemetery there before his ashes from creation were committed to the sea on February 11, 2008 from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan.
Locally, there is a street and the town square in the center of town named after Wally Schirra.
He was honored as a returning hero in a community celebration October 15, 1962 after his first flight in space. As we are looking to the 50th anniversary of that occasion, the story of that day will await a later consideration.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Source Materials - Biography of A Borough: Oradell (1969), by Irving Crump; Oradell Centennial; 1894-1994…And, a special thank you to Borough Archivist, George Carter for his ear, his support generally and in particular his help in securing historic pictures from the Borough/Library Collection.
This post first appeared in River Dell Patch in 2011