by Bob Hannum
Nearly hidden away on an obscure plot of land here in Montpelier 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 after it was launched. The seven included the first civilian astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from New Hampshire.
As terrible as it was, the disaster was made even worse because students and teachers from all over the country were inspired by McAuliffe, including our local science classes. They watched on live television, in nationwide excitement when, seconds into the launch joy 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.”
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.
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.
Thanks to readers of 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.
Roselli’s parents, Evelyn and Vic, owned Desilets Granite Company, a well-known memorial manufacturer, which is 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.
From the beginning, our commission intended that no taxpayer funds be involved in this project, particularly when so many are financially stressed by COVID-19. 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 memorial is in excellent condition, although it needs a good cleaning, which I’ll donate — my business is art restoration with a sideline in monument cleaning. The project includes carefully removing the memorial and its foundation, pouring a new one, and reinstalling the monument in a new location. Barre Granite Company, with many decades of experience in monument installation, will do the work.
Here’s where we need your help. The plan is to move it this July when the ground is solid enough for heavy equipment, so as not to disturb an underground culvert next to the memorial. Where do you think its new home should be? Ideally, a popular and accessible spot for the entire community with 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.
Three beautiful locations have been mentioned: (1) Peace Park, (2) on the grounds of the high school, and (3) next to the bike path between the center of the city and the Transit Center. The Transit Center is my favorite location because it has 24/7 lighting for security.
So far, only one person objects to moving it. His reasoning is sound: the current location is so obscure it discourages vandalism. Although we can’t guarantee a graffiti-free location, we do promise that the security concern is front and center.
One mystery remained, besides the apples arranged on the memorial from time to time. Why was Dan Roselli so passionate about this? He had no kids. He was not a teacher or coach or otherwise involved with the school. He was busily 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.