Top 50 Hokie Spotlight: Homer Hickam
"You want to be an engineer, you have to go to engineer school. Heard they got a good one at VPI."
Truer words have never been spoken.
Growing up in the small mining community of Coalwood, WV, Homer Hickam devoted much of his life in high school exploring the field of rocketry and pursuing his dream of winning a gold medal at the National Science Fair. If that story sounds familiar, it’s because Hickam would eventually adapt it into the #1 New York Times best seller, “Rocket Boys” which in turn inspired the critically acclaimed feature film, “October Sky”.
However, I'd argue that the most fascinating part of Homer Hickam's life begins just after the final scene in the movie ends. After graduating high school, Homer actually found himself in an uncomfortable situation, working at a local gas station in Coalwood and worrying about what to do next. Fortunately, Homer’s mother Elsie provided some much needed advice and an exit strategy… go to Virginia Tech.
The rest as you can say is history.
As a member of the Class of ‘64, Homer Hickam’s career embodied the VT motto of ‘Ut Prosim’. With his degree in Industrial Engineering in hand, Hickam began his professional life as an officer in the US Army that included a tour in Vietnam where he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Following six years of military service, he was honorably discharged and transitioned into civilian life, first working at the US Army Missile Command then eventually joining NASA as an aerospace engineer where he helped design spacecraft and served as the Payload Training Manager for the International Space Station Program until his retirement in 1998.
Homer Hickam’s amazing career firmly establishes him as one of the Top 50 Hokies of All Time in addition to having the unofficial title as Virginia Tech’s Renaissance man. Yet, the cherry on top of a full of achievements would have to be the long standing tradition he helped establish during his time in Blacksburg, the Skipper cannon.
For much of the 20th century, Virginia Tech (then called VPI) played their annual football rivalry game against VMI on Thanksgiving Day at the old Victory Stadium in Roanoke. The lead up to the game, commonly referred to as the “Military Classic of the South”, was concluded by each school's Corps of Cadets marching onto the field where VMI would subsequently roll out and fire its cannon named “Little John” and proceed to taunt the VPI sideline by chanting, “Where’s your cannon!?!”
Following the game in 1962, Homer Hickam had seen enough. Determined to build a cannon of their own, Hickam and two of his fellow cadets, Alton Harper and George Fox, commenced a yearlong tireless effort to construct the famed 1860 Civil War era replica brass cannon nicknamed “Skipper”, in honor of the late President John F. Kennedy.
Fast forward to the 1963 VPI-VMI football game, Homer and friends eagerly anticipated their response to VMI’s chant of “Where’s your cannon!?!” When the moment arrived, Skipper was positioned onto the field and discharged. The blast was so overwhelming, it would forever silence the VMI corps and inadvertently launch one of the greatest Hokie traditions.