Monumental Mystery!

Challenger Memorial

The Challenger Disaster

Nearly hidden away on an obscure plot of land in Montpelier, Vermont is a memorial to the 'Challenger Seven'. These are the astronauts who died 35 years ago on January 28, 1986 when NASA's space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into launch. The seven included the first civilian astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from neighboring New Hampshire.

It was a particularly awful disaster because students and teachers from all over the United States and beyond were inspired by Ms. McAuliffe, including our local science classes. Many young children watched on live television when seconds into the launch excitement turned to disbelief and horror as the shuttle exploded. Retired Montpelier science teacher Roger Crowley who was watching with his students recalls, “It was the most difficult time I’ve ever had in the classroom.”

My class was part of the Teacher in Space program and we communicated with Christa many times. We were doing experiments in the classroom with tomato seeds that had been in space. It was interesting how some parents thought the seeds and tomatoes we grew were harmful with alien stuff. Curious even after telling them that they were sealed while in space and the experiments had to do with the effects of gravity on growth. Anyway, we ate the tomatoes. My room was full that day of students, parents, and guests watching the Challenger take off.

The Problem

As a member of the newly created Montpelier Public Art Commission, one of my duties is to assess our current public art. When I got to this memorial, a beautiful granite work of art in a place that people can’t get to, it called out to me to be moved to a new location where parking is available, walking is safe, and people can get up close and be as moved as I am.

My fellow Commission members agreed and so began an adventure!

The Mystery

First step, who owns it? Turns out no one. The National Life Insurance Company, now the National Life Group, donated the land where it sits. The Roselli family donated it. The City installed it. No school records. No paperwork. The City, school, and National Life agreed to hand it over to our Commission.

The History

Thanks to readers of the Front Porch Forum here's what we now know:

- Daniel Roselli designed the monument. He died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 49 and is buried next to his parents in Green Mount Cemetery. "Danny deserves all the credit on this. He…got everything done," remarked his father.

- His parents, Evelyn and Vic, owned Desilets Granite Company, a well-known monument manufacturer, now condos on Barre Street. They fabricated and funded the memorial.

- Vic hired Ed Epstein, who still resides locally, to etch the image on the memorial which includes two slabs of granite, one light ‘Barre Gray’ from a local quarry and the other ‘India Dark’ which was imported.

- The City raised money to design and plant a small park surrounding the memorial which is now long gone.

- The National Life Group donated the land where it now sits and took excellent care of it.

- A well-attended dedication was held in the fall of 1986 which included local school children and teachers. Many Front Porch Forum readers remember the hot day and even a few kids fainting.

The Benefactor

From the beginning our Commission intended that no taxpayer funds be involved in this project, particularly when so many are financially stressed by COVID. To our tremendous appreciation, the National Life Group offered, unsolicited, to cover all the costs. Several Front Porch Forum readers have also offered financial aid. Our City Counselor, Conor Casey, offered to help with any snags.

The Project

The monument is in excellent condition, though it needs a good cleaning which I’ll donate – my business is art restoration with a sideline in monument cleaning.

The project entails carefully removing the memorial and its foundation, pouring a new one in a more accessible location, and reinstalling it.

Matthew Calcagni and his brothers who own GCB Corp (Granite Company of Barre), with many decades of experience in monument installation, will do the work.

The plan is to move it when the ground is solid enough for heavy equipment, so as not to disturb an underground culvert next to the memorial.

Related Projects:

The public will be canvassed about the best new location with accessibility and a measure of security to reduce the risk of vandalism. For extra protection, I'll coat the monument so that any 'tagging' (art industry lingo for graffiti) is easily removed.

Possible Locations

Three beautiful locations have been mentioned: our 'Peace Park', anywhere on the high school grounds, or anywhere next to a new stretch of the bike path between the center of Montpelier and the new Transit Center.

So far, only one person objects to moving it. His reasoning is sound: the current location is so obscure it discourages vandalism. Can’t guarantee a graffiti-free location but we do promise that the security concern is front and center.

One Final Question

One mystery remained, besides the apples arranged on the top of the memorial from time to time. Why was Dan so passionate about this? He had no kids. He was not a teacher or coach or otherwise involved with the school. He was busy learning his parents’ granite business which he would soon take over.

So why did he do this? One of his closest friends, Doug Zorzi, emailed me to explain that Dan was truly a rare kind of person who was not only deeply moved by the disaster, but doubly moved by the added tragedy that so many young people witnessed it first-hand.

After Dan died a high school scholarship fund was established in his family’s name.

Update: October 2021 - Mission Accomplished!

A gentleman recently contacted me to solve the apple mystery - why apples are found atop the monument every year. He explained that local residents still honor Ms. McAuliffe by bringing an apple for the teacher.

The monument has been placed in its new location and with a nice granite platform. It's also been cleaned and coated. And a re-dedication ceremony is being planned for later this month.

While I was cleaning it, a man introduced himself as a retired National Life employee. For over 20 years he drove by the old site of the monument twice a day on his commute, but never noticed the etching, never got up close to see the names, never knew what it was all about. He was glad we moved it so he and others can now can really enjoy it.

The Roselli Family at the dedication of the Challenger memorial
Caption for the newspaper photo of the Roselli family

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