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Backed by History, Looking Ahead

NASA Leader Took Chances, Seeks Opportunities for Others

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page B01

Interim NASA Administrator Frederick Drew Gregory took a seat in the tiny study abutting his office and gestured toward the surrounding bookshelves.

"I call this the Francis Gregory room," he said. "I named it after my father. If he had been able to work in government, this is where he would have been."

Interim NASA Administrator Frederick Drew Gregory, left, walks with NASA associate administrators Bill Readdy and Bryan O'Connor at Kennedy Space Center in 2003. (Joe Skipper -- Reuters)

Fred Gregory, a cheerful, personable man, speaks without bitterness, and there is more than a half-century of black history written in his résumé. By straddling two Americas, he might have gotten the best of both.

Francis Gregory, an African American with a master's degree in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could never get a job in white America, so he taught in black schools in segregated Washington.

Fred Gregory got a fine education at these segregated schools, graduated from an integrated Air Force Academy and eventually became the first black astronaut to pilot NASA's space shuttle and serve as mission commander. Unlike his father, he has worked for the federal government all his professional life.

In mid-February, Gregory moved up from his job as NASA's deputy administrator to interim administrator -- a job he will hold until President Bush names a permanent replacement for administrator Sean O'Keefe, who left the agency to become chancellor of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Might he succeed O'Keefe permanently?

"I would hope not," he said quickly. But then came the qualifiers: "I'll tell you, though, it's a blast; the agency is the most challenging entity that I can imagine. A person who comes in here has to be passionate about it."

Gregory, by his own admission, has never lacked passion. From early childhood, he said, "all I wanted to do was fly." He dropped out of Amherst College after a year, transferring to the Air Force Academy after his father got Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.) to sponsor him.

"All four years at the academy, I listed my home as the Abyssinian Baptist Church" in West Harlem, N.Y., Gregory said. He was the only African American in the Class of 1964.

Gregory was born Jan. 7, 1941, in the District's Freedmen's Hospital and moved into the newly built family home in Southeast Washington at the age of 6 months. His mother, Nora, 92, still lives there.

The family was among the most distinguished in the District's black community. His great-grandfather Gregory was a member of Howard University's first graduating class. His uncle Charles R. Drew was a surgeon who helped develop blood banks in World War II. Former D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D) is his cousin.

Gregory's upbringing was one of privilege. He went to Boy Scout camp, vacationed at the family summer cabin on Lake Erie and attended schools with such teachers as Miss Smith in sixth grade, who told her students, "You are significant, and you will contribute," Gregory recalled. His classmates included Charlene Drew and J. Paul Reason, who would become the nation's first black four-star admiral.

But Gregory's world was a segregated one. The Boy Scouts were the black Boy Scouts, and they had a black scout camp. The members of his family went to Lake Erie, because "there was nothing in the city [Washington] they could do," he said. "The teachers were spectacular because they couldn't work anywhere else."

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