On a warm evening last August, on the lawn between the steps of the gold-domed statehouse here and the statue of Daniel Webster, the summer band concert was interrupted so the mayor could proclaim "Christa McAuliffe Day."
McAuliffe, who on Friday is to become the first schoolteacher in space, received a miniature flag of the city -- there are no keys -- and a pewter plate sent by the governor. When she had said a few words about how proud she is to represent Concord, the conductor passed her the baton and McAuliffe, a master of public aplomb, led the band in "Stars and Stripes Forever" as the crowd clapped along.
"Good old-fashioned home-town stuff," said C. David Coeyman, who was mayor at that time. Before long, the stuff of civic dreams became the source of what one local headline called "a snit" over how much celebrity is sufficient.
Coeyman said last week that he and local leaders began to think that they ought to plan for McAuliffe's return to the Merrimack Valley from her 2 million mile voyage aboard the shuttle Challenger.
When New Hampshire native Alan Shepard, the first American in space, came home to the small town of Derry 25 years ago, he was welcomed by a huge parade with Air Force jets overhead, and there was even an effort to rename Derry "Spacetown, U.S.A."
Coeyman and others reasoned that "media events" would help control the reporters sure to descend on this town of 32,000 as they did last July when McAuliffe, 37, was picked from among 11,000 teacher applicants to ride the space shuttle. If a Boston television station could land a helicopter on the Concord High School lawn that day, there was no telling what might happen next.
"The Christa McAuliffe Welcome Home Celebration Coordinating Committee" was formed in November, made up of Coeyman, City Manager James C. Smith and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the school district, McAuliffe and NASA. But doubt persisted about whether NASA was going to help cope with the fame it had bestowed on McAuliffe.
Smith said he and others thought to themselves, "It won't be long, and they'll be in touch with us." The calls never came. "We called NASA and made some contacts with the White House," Smith said last week. "I guess maybe the fact is they haven't told us very much of anything."
Linda Long, a Washington, D.C., public relations consultant representing McAuliffe for NASA, said the agency's mission is space projects, not homecoming celebrations.
"Concord, N.H., does not have an official role in the Teacher-In-Space Program," said Long, who handles McAuliffe's "post-flight" scheduling from the Johnny Carson Show to the Kiwanis Club. But Long assured committee members that McAuliffe's first event after the landing will be in her home town.
By early December, Van McCleod, a local theatrical producer and a subcommittee chairman, had planned events with an estimated price tag of $80,200 to $173,000. The City Council tentatively approved the welcome committee's request for $26,700 in seed money to hire a planning staff of six.
The rest of the money would come from private donations and the sale of a locally designed logo showing the shuttle and a mortar board hung with a star instead of a tassel. Its legend -- "Reach for the Stars" -- became McAuliffe's theme.
The plans included a parade, a speech to the legislature, fireworks, entertainment and 15,000 copies of an eight-page full-color program.
"Van was blue-skying," Coeyman said of McCleod's ideas. They were never meant to be set in stone, he said -- but when they appeared in black and white on the front page of the city's daily newspaper, the Concord Monitor, they seemed very real and very grandiose.
This is New Hampshire, where there is no state income tax and public funds are sparingly spent, so the idea of a $26,700 taxpayer investment did not go over well with many people here. In an editorial, the Monitor labeled the affair "Hype-hype hooray."
"We're happy as a clam about the McAuliffe flight, but we think the council acted imprudently in putting up the money," wrote Monitor editor Mike Pride. " . . . We wonder if the city isn't sacrificing genuine feeling to promotional hype in an effort to use McAuliffe to 'sell Concord.' "
Coeyman says the Monitor was "up on its high horse" and "totally out of line" when it suggested that local businesses were trying to "make a buck off the McAuliffe flight."
Concord High School principal Charles Foley, a committee member, observed that the Monitor contributed its share of hype with a 15-page, full-color supplement called "Christa's Challenge," written for a student audience. Another special section will appear in the Monitor this week.
"I think it's a big story," Pride said, "and people want to know all about it, and that's our job."
Meanwhile, word got to the committee that McAuliffe and her husband were uncomfortable with the homecoming hoopla. The seed-money request was withdrawn, McCleod's plans were shelved and the committee retreated, dispirited and a little hurt.
"This isn't New York City," McAuliffe later told Monitor reporter Bob Hohler. "It's not the Olympics. It's Concord, N.H., and a homecoming should reflect the community I'm part of." That meant no fanfare, and most of all, no taxpayers' money.
"It was terribly embarrassing," Coeyman said. "The potential for embarrassing Christa was our primary concern."
But McCleod sees a missed opportunity. "I think Christa McAuliffe is as close to a national heroine as we have."
City Manager Smith thinks some jealousy may have helped undermine the plans: People were heard to grumble, "I could have done that," when McAuliffe's flight is mentioned. He also sees Yankee individualism at work -- meaning, Smith said, "That's nice for her, but I don't have to be involved. Don't make me get involved."
She hasn't left the ground yet, but plans for McAuliffe's homecoming now consist of a short parade, school visits, maybe a service club luncheon and an appearance before the legislature. The "Reach for the Stars" logo survived the controversy, and proceeds from its appearance on balloons or T-shirts will help pay for what is to be a very modest celebration.
At the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, Executive Vice President James W. Milliken is sorry that the plans had to be scaled down. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity . . . . I think we should allow our community, the state of New Hampshire to celebrate this momentous event . . . . This is going to be in the history books. And I think we need to do it right. Don't we?