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The Rocket Chaser

By Grace Hayes
December 19, 2010

In the Sunday morning light, Billy Rose’s black-rimmed glasses reflect a winter sky crisscrossed with airplane trails. As the greeter stands at the church doors, few realize that although his feet may be rooted to the ground, his dreams once soared much higher.

Born in eastern Kentucky, Rose and his family moved to Coalwood, W.Va., when he was just 2 years old. During the late 1950s, the Coalwood area was composed of about five different mining communities situated around the coal mine.

Over the following 16 years, Rose lived in four of those communities. “I did not know it at the time but Coalwood was one of the best places to live,” he said. Coalwood and its sister community, Caretta, shared six stores between them, with one main store in each. “When I talk to students about where I lived, I tell them we had a Wal-Mart before there was a Wal-Mart,” he said.

It was in a Coalwood grade school that Rose first met Homer “Sonny” Hickam, Roy Lee Cooke, Jimmy O’Dell Carroll and Sherman Siers. The group learned to fish, dance, swim and play sports together, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1957 that they kicked the coal dust off their shoes and got their hands on rocket fuel. After meeting Quentin Wilson, they formed the now-infamous “Rocket Boys” and launched their futures into the autumn atmosphere.

Originally calling themselves the “Big Creek Missile Agency,” the Rocket Boys experimented with rocket building and various forms of rocket fuel. In 1960, they presented their designs at the National Science Fair and won a gold and silver medal in the propulsion category.

Four of the Rocket Boys went on to become engineers, including Homer Hickam, who attended Virginia Tech and majored in industrial engineering. Hickam wrote a memoir about their adventures, fittingly titled “Rocket Boys.” His novel was then made into a film called “October Sky,” which starred Jake Gyllenhaal.

Rose joined the group about six months after it was originally formed. Since he did not have transportation and lived a good distance from Homer Hickam’s home, Rose was not always with the group when the rockets were tested.

However, when he was present, he was tasked with calculating the rockets’ altitudes and finding the rockets after they were launched. “I had a good sense of smell and could run very fast,” Rose said. “We never lost a single rocket, contrary to the depiction in the movie.”

Hickam concurred, noting in “Rocket Boys” that when chasing after the rockets, “Billy was in the lead. He was not only a good runner, but he had a great nose for burnt rocket candy.” Hickam also referred to Rose as “good old sharp-eyed Billy.”

When asked what initially inspired them to pursue rocketry, Rose said, “Two words: arrogance and patriotism.” In October of 1957, as the boys entered high school, Russia launched Sputnik I. “It was the equivalent of the first nuclear bomb or 9/11,” he said.

The launch of Sputnik I had unbalanced the scale of power and sent the country into a panic. New emphasis was placed upon the “space race,” causing improvements in the education system, particularly in the fields of science and mathematics. The Rocket Boys were confident in their goal, as all excelled in science and math.

Rose’s dark hair is neatly parted and smoothed to the side, and he has just attached a string to his glasses to keep them in place. Still, his face often bears a knowing smile, as if in acceptance of childhood beliefs like sending a rocket to the moon. The boys believed they “were just as smart and just as capable of building rockets as the Russians,” Rose said. “So when Sonny Hickam told us that he was going to learn how to build and fly rockets, we were in.”

Over 40 years later, Homer Hickam still remembers Rose’s enthusiasm. “He loved being a member of the Big Creek Missile Agency,” Hickam said. “I also recall his friendly nature, and his willingness to help out, although he had little.”

Just how little was evidenced when Rose explained there were seven children in his family. His father was an alcoholic who spent his income elsewhere. When Rose entered high school, his father quit his job due to a mining accident. The family’s lack of income meant another move into a less developed part of Coalwood. Their electricity was cut off and Rose was forced to study by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Although Rose’s character was sadly left out of the film, Hickam explained there was “a small amount of Billy in the character of Quentin in ‘October Sky,’ especially where he is shown studying by kerosene lantern.”

Rose recalled that although he struggled, he did not struggle alone. The principal at Coalwood Junior High School, Robert Likens, helped Rose acquire free lunches and clothing. The principal of Big Creek High School convinced him to stay in school instead of enlisting in the Navy his junior year.

It is likely that if those two principals hadn’t intervened he wouldn’t have graduated high school and wouldn't have been able to attend college. “I am forever indebted to both of those men,” Rose said.

However, after his graduation, money remained a roadblock. The boy who had studied meticulously by kerosene lamp, urged on by his teachers and fellow rocketeers, could not attend college. The money was simply not available and he was unaware of how to procure scholarships, grants, loans or work-study. As he watched the goal of college slip below the horizon, Rose decided to do what many boys did at the time. He joined the service.

In the Air Force, he gained experience in electronics and advanced rapidly. Soon, he married Rose Barber, also from West Virginia, and the two had their first and only child, Sherry Ann. While his life and family expanded, Rose learned by chance that through the National Student Defense Loan Program he could finally afford to go to college. The program offered student loans at a low interest rate and students were not required to repay the loans until after graduation from college.

Rose left the Air Force and was accepted into the electrical engineering program at West Virginia University. Although his dream was finally in grasp, he realized the challenges were far from over.

“My wife and I worked and sacrificed for four years to get my BSEE degree,” Mr. Rose said. He was determined to graduate in four years, so he attended summer classes and worked at least 20 hours per week during the fall and spring semesters. After graduation, he worked in military electronics for eight years in various cities along the East Coast.

As a whole, it seems the ambitious group of boys from a coal-mining town was set up for success. The dedication to chasing rockets carried over into chasing dreams, as all the Rocket Boys eventually completed college. “I suppose the problem-solving techniques we learned while perfecting our rocket designs did help us later in our careers,” Rose said.

Eventually, he and his wife grew tired of living in large metropolitan areas and decided to return to their roots. In 1976, they moved to Bluefield, Va., a small town located about an hour away from Coalwood. Rose found work in electronics in the mining industry and later joined Parkview Baptist Church. Now retired, he works part-time and teaches Sunday school.

Rose, Jimmy O’Dell Carroll and Roy Lee Cooke often travel to area schools to speak about their experiences. The three e-mail and speak on the phone about once a week and meet with Homer Hickam several times a year. The remaining Rocket Boys also attend the annual October Sky Festival held each October in Coalwood.

Rose’s house is nestled in the valley, just down the road from the church. The Sunday morning clouds stretch towards the sea of blue overhead, as if in silent salute of Mr. Rose’s refusal to take his eyes off the sky. The Rocket Boys may have been fueled by youthful bravado, but the boy who never lost a rocket never lost sight of his goals or ambition either, regardless of the daunting challenges.

When Hickam finally immortalized the Rocket Boys in print, he found Rose to be a source of inspiration. “Billy was determined to have a better life,” Hickam said. “I love Billy like a brother. I consider him the best of the Rocket Boys because he had to overcome so much more than the rest of us.”