Interesting West Virginia Natives
You are probably already familiar with quite a few famous people from West Virginia like Jennifer Gardner or Brad Paisley, but you may not realize that the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound or a female NASA mathematician also called West Virginia home. West Virginia is full of unique, talented people. Here are 4 interesting natives of West Virginia.
Katherine Johnson highlighted in “Hidden Figures”
Katherine Johnson, one of the women highlighted in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures”, was a West Virginia native. Leading to the success of the first US astronauts in space were people who worked behind-the-scenes as human computers. NASA hired hundreds of women as human computers whose jobs were to perform mathematical calculations by hand. When the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia began recruiting African American women with degrees, they were segregated and worked in a separate section called the West Area Computers. These women became engineers and electronic computer programmers as well as the first black managers at Langley. It was their work that successfully launched John Glenn into orbit in 1962.
Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She attended high school at the age of 13 and began attending West Virginia State College at 18. She graduated with highest honors and began working as a school teacher. When the West Virginia University integrated their graduate programs a couple years later she was picked to be one of three black students to enroll, but left to have children. She re-entered the workforce at the West Area Computing section at Langley. Johnson retired in 1986 and in 2015 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US. She died earlier this year at the age of 101. If you have not watched Hidden Figures, it’s a must-see!
Saira Blair became the youngest state or federal legislator in the history of the US at the time of her election. In November 2014, she was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates at 18 years old. She won her primary at only 17, not yet old enough to vote, and ultimately defeated 44-year-old incumbent, Larry Kump. While serving her term, she was also a student at West Virginia University. Blair would defer her spring semesters at WVU during the Legislature’s 60-day spring sessions. Saira is from Martinsburg, West Virginia, affiliated with the Republican Party and represented the 59th district. In 2018, she announced she would not run for re-election.
Homer Hickam, Jr.
Homer Hickam Jr., engineer and author of Rocket Boys, grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia. The son of a coal miner, Hickman became interested in rockets after the launch of Sputnik. His book, Rocket Boys, tells of growing up in the mining town and building rockets in the backyard with a group of boys and is the basis of the critically acclaimed film October Sky. After the success of the film, Rocket Boys was re-titled October Sky and released again. It reached #1 on New York Times best-seller list. Hickam is the recipient of various awards including the University of Alabama’s Clarence Cason Award, the Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award and an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Marshall University.
Chuck Yeager was the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound. He was born in Myra, West Virginia and grew up in Hamlin. He was a Brigadier General in the US Air Force from 1941-1975 and flew combat missions in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. At 21-years old he was shot down over German-occupied France, rescued by the French Resistance, smuggled into Spain and returned to England. In 1947, he broke the sound barrier, becoming the first supersonic pilot, at Mach 1.06 over the Mojave Desert.