Bits 'n' Pieces: Retiring teacher helps trades blast off

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Mike Murray's classroom at Skyview High School often felt like a NASA laboratory: busy with student-built, museum-quality models of spacecraft, mission control consoles and space shuttle flight decks.

Those models, and the other fascinating projects that Murray's students worked on -- mock missions into Earth's orbit and all the way to Mars, real attempts to design spaceworthy rockets using off-the-shelf materials and a balloon as the initial launch vehicle -- required more than scientific study. Plenty of painstaking handiwork was also needed.

That's why Murray, who just retired at age 61 after 39 years of teaching, has established a Clark College scholarship for students headed into trades. It's not for students pursuing four-year degrees in surging STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which enjoy plenty of support these days. The Murray Scholarship Fund is for students headed for hands-on technical fields such as construction and welding, drafting and computer-aided design, emergency medical and radiology.

That's because Murray, whose mind has long been among the stars, also has a heart for the grounded workers who translate daring ideas into functional realities. "By supporting these students, we support the backbone of America," he said. "That's what we need to focus on in education. Without those people, this nation simply will not continue." To learn more about the Murray Scholarship Fund, contact Clark College Foundation development officer Constance Grecco at cgrecco@clark.edu.

At a recent retirement party, Murray recalled that he and several of his dedicated Explorer Scout advisees once ran from the Chkalov monument at Pearson Field all the way to Downey, Calif., and the headquarters of NASA contractor Rockwell International, to deliver plaques of appreciation. That was in 1979, on the 10th anniversary of the first moon landing.

"Our purpose was to say 'thank you' and publicly acknowledge the tremendous accomplishment of the tradespeople who made the moon mission possible. Without apprentices, journeymen and masters, with all that they accomplished in a decade of work — no moon mission," Murray said.

Murray himself was once poised at the edge of space — until fate stepped in with a terribly cosmic twist. He'd paused classroom teaching in Battle Ground to become a finalist for NASA's Teacher in Space Project, but wasn't selected for the January 1986 mission. That mission barely began before it ended in disaster: the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds into its flight, and teacher Christa McAuliffe died along with the rest of the crew.

After that, Murray worked with NASA and did weighlessness studies on Boeing's zero-gravity airplane, the so-called Vomit Comet (which did live up to its name during Murray's adventures up there). Then he returned to teaching in Clark County.

But he kept his eyes on the skies. "I chose the space program as a unifying theme in my teaching," Murray said, "because it unifies all of the curriculum and disciplines, and exemplifies the very best of humanity and all we can be."

Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.