Since Christa McAuliffe was selected last year to be the nation's first teacher in space, Bowie State College boasted unabashedly about its former student, who earned a master's degree in education at the small, historically black school.
For the Prince George's County college of 2,700 students, this famous alumnus symbolized accomplishment in its long struggle for recognition, particularly of its teacher education programs.
That "special pride," said college President James E. Lyons at a ceremony yesterday in McAuliffe's honor, was laced with pain last week when she died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
To 400 students and faculty at the campus auditorium, Lyons spoke of "the pride that one of our own had been the one teacher in 11,000 chosen to go into space . . . then, last week, the pain of losing a member of our college family."
Bowie State officials, like families and institutions across the country mourning the Challenger crew, organized a memorial service to recognize the unique connection with McAuliffe, who earned her degree there in 1978 and was scheduled to return to campus as the commencement speaker this spring.
During a visit by McAuliffe with college officials last summer, a campus photographer had caught McAuliffe outside one of the red brick buildings, flashing her trademark smile, broad and confident. Yesterday, that haunting photograph was propped on a black-draped easel, surrounded by flowers, on a stage of officials who eulogized the former student.
Lyons described McAuliffe as a teacher with "vitality, energy and enthusiasm . . . . She was a wonderfully committed teacher" who vowed to return to the classroom after her shuttle flight.
As a graduate student, studying at night after teaching during the day, McAuliffe wrote a seminar paper on handicapped students, focusing on their acceptance among other students, said her faculty adviser, Archie Lucas, now an adjunct professor at Bowie State.
The topic of that research, he said, typified her concern for others. "The thing that came across most about her was that she was outgoing and caring," said Lucas.
As a white student, McAuliffe was in the minority at Bowie State, where about 70 percent of the students are black, and she was one of two Challenger crew members to attend a historically black college, according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration official Roscoe Monroe. Ronald E. McNair received a bachelor's degree in physics from North Carolina A&T State University.
During McAuliffe's career as a social studies teacher, Monroe said at yesterday's ceremonies, she strove to teach history as the compilation of personal lives, not a dull chronicle of battlefield maneuvers. As part of that effort, she created a course based on the journals of American women who crossed the Plains.
McAuliffe, who planned to keep a journal of her flight, "was living that history Tuesday, Jan. 28," Monroe said, "as she herself became a pioneer of a new age.