I Write… Children’s Books?

One of the most surprising events this year has been my unexpected excitement about writing a children’s book called When Astronauts Came to Town. This desire overwhelmed my creative energy already committed to creating books for adults about this same Morehead Planetarium history.

It’s my kids who made it inevitable. Helping them grow up means a constant stream of items coming into and being removed from their bedrooms. Small toys like action figures and Lego kits usually give way to game consoles, field hockey gear, and musical instruments. Similarly, children’s books usually get pulled from shelves to make way for YA, sci-fi, and horror novels.

Pulling Clarence the Copycat from my daughter’s shelf, I found myself crying over the idea that we would lose it. As I secreted this precious story away in my office and wiped my face, I looked at all my planetarium research papers. And it hit me.

“Kids would really love learning about Tony Jenzano. He made stars glow in a huge domed room. He had astronauts over for dinner.” If my reaction to a children’s book about the copycat were any indication, other parents could find an emotional connection to my children’s book about Tony.

Early this year, I wrote and rewrote. After several drafts, I went to a workshop delivered by a deeply passionate soul, Susie Wilde. That session ignited my passion for telling this story even more. CJ Jenzano, an experienced educator and the daughter of my book’s central character, gave great suggestions and the book took better shape.

And in the past month, Morehead Planetarium agreed to publish the book with an illustrator of my choice. This week’s successful meeting with a brilliant illustrator, Benlin Alexander, has made the book seem even more real.

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Michael Neece with Benlin Alexander

Early next year, publisher Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and distributor UNC Press will push these books to Amazon and to a bookstore (and planetarium gift shop) near you! Details to follow soon, so stay tuned.

Oh, and if you were concerned, those other books about Morehead are still in process. Again, stay tuned.

Don Hall, Astronaut Trainer

Don Hall (left), former Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer 1962 - 1968 with Michael G. Neece (right)
Don Hall (left), former Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer 1962 – 1968 with Michael G. Neece (right)

I spent the day with Don Hall, a Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer from 1962 – 1968. Joining me for one interview was Richard McColman, a man who knows as much about early space missions as anyone I’ve ever met. We got to satisfy a lot of our mutual curiosity regarding training, astronaut personalities, and the Tony Jenzano era at Morehead.

Fulldome Theater Manager, Richard McColman (left) sits with former assistant director Don Hall (right) examining a diagram of the Zeiss VI.
Fulldome Theater Manager, Richard McColman (left) sits with former assistant director Don Hall (right) examining a diagram of the Zeiss VI.

Tomorrow, I will host a lunch with Don Hall, Carol “CJ” Jenzano (daughter of Tony Jenzano), Todd Boyette (current Morehead Planetarium & Science Center director), and Jim Horn (technical visionary for 30+ years at Morehead). Lunch provided will be a classic southern welcome home provided by Mama Dips.

We round out the weekend with a Sunday afternoon panel discussion with Jim Horn and Don Hall regarding Tony Jenzano’s legacy and anything our audience wants to ask about. There is still a bit of space, so RSVP right away for our 3 PM session in Morehead Planetarium’s State Dining Room.

Don Hall (left), Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer from 1962 - 1968 with Michael G. Neece (right)

How This All Got Started

Morehead Planetarium & Science Center director Todd Boyette is my friend and has been for years. Over a cup of holiday cheer in December 2016, I told him I wanted to write books about Morehead. He agreed that too many of our stories are untold and encouraged me to chase these stories. Todd promised (and delivered) archival access, staff support, and even a budget for travel and research. With his support, I’ve been on a quest to tell the world about this gemstone embedded in the heart of North Carolina.

The core of our astronauts-visiting-Chapel-Hill story is Tony Jenzano.

He was the man who proposed to NASA that Morehead Planetarium create and deliver astronaut training from the very beginning of the astronaut program. NASA (and the astronauts) appreciated the training so much, Morehead’s contract was renewed from 1960 – 1975. All of this was going on in the sleepy southern town of Chapel Hill, NC. Nobody knew astronauts had come for training until they were already gone.

The training saved astronaut lives.

And just as cool as saving astronauts sounds, what about all those times Tony went bowling with astronauts or had them over for dinner? Or had them come sit out with him on his front porch?

Interviews with astronauts like Jim Lovell and Story Musgrave have led to exciting moments, but some of the best interviews have been with former and current employees and with Tony’s daughter.

On January 20 and 21, we’ll be interviewing Don Hall, former assistant director and educator who trained over fifty astronauts in the 1960’s. Two other special guests will be there: Jim Horn, the man who for years told me “Tony stories” and infused me with curiosity, and CJ Jenzano, Tony’s daughter who still remembers when she sat with her family and astronauts on her front porch.