Willie McCool's classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy remember him as an extremely rare confluence of brains, leadership, toughness, athleticism and modesty.
He graduated second in his class of 1,083, and was one of the few sent to graduate school at Navy expense. A gifted runner, he was elected captain of the cross-country team his senior year. He went on to be one of the class of 1983's best pilots and its first astronaut.
McCool, 41, a Navy commander, was the pilot of the space shuttle Columbia yesterday.
"The guys who were competing to be first in the class and the ones competing for the top positions in the brigade -- sometimes we joked that they weren't even human, they were aliens," Gordon Moller, one of McCool's classmates, said yesterday. "Willie was a regular guy. He was still up in the stratosphere, but he was one of the guys. He was an elite, but he was not aloof."
Others also remembered the mix of extraordinary performance and winning personality.
"His personality and his smile were electric, and people just latched onto it. I think that was one of the reasons he was so successful," said Mark Newman, who was a year behind McCool at Annapolis and ran cross-country with him.
"He never looked down on people and never treated people like he was smarter than they, even though he was smarter than 95 percent of anyone he met. Willie got to the top because he deserved it," said Newman, who is a pilot for Federal Express in Tennessee.
McCool was born to fly. He was the son of a Navy and Marine aviator and built model airplanes as a youngster.
He never really thought of doing anything but going to the Naval Academy, say those who knew him.
When he was launched into orbit on Jan. 16, he had more than 2,800 hours of flight experience in 24 aircraft. He had made more than 400 landings on aircraft-carrier decks, a task many fliers consider the most difficult in aviation.
McCool was born in San Diego and lived in many places as a child and adolescent. He was an Eagle scout. He moved to Lubbock, Tex., when he was in 11th grade and immediately was among the best students at Coronado High School.
"He was just one of the best students there was. He picked up concepts just as fast as I could present them," said Mary Hildebrand, who taught McCool trigonometry and calculus.
"He earned good grades in all the hardest classes, while participating in band and track," said Joni Newcomb, who once lived across the street from McCool. "He was smart, he was driven, he knew what he wanted and he went after it."
McCool studied aerospace engineering at the Naval Academy. He received a master's degree in computer science from the University of Maryland in 1985 and a master's in aeronautical engineering at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1992.
He attended flight school in Pensacola, Fla., and worked as a test pilot at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in southern Maryland. Before he was chosen to become an astronaut in 1996, he was stationed at Whidbey Island, Wash., where he was a member of a tactical electronic warfare squadron.
He was married and the father of three sons. He enjoyed back-country backpacking, running, swimming, chess and playing the guitar, according to information provided by NASA.
After he was assigned to the Columbia, McCool invited his academy track coach, Al Cantello, to attend the launch. Cantello made up a pennant with 38 N-stars, each marking a Navy victory over Army teams while he had been track coach.
In exchange, McCool gave Cantello a portrait of himself, with the dedication: "To Al Cantello, Your coaching laid a foundation of discipline, drive and passion that has carried me across the many milestones of my life. With boundless appreciation, Willie."