Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
On school day afternoons from 1962-1973, “Major Astro” aired on a Wichita TV station, KARD (now KSN).
As Major Astro, Tom Leahy Jr. wore a white space suit and sometimes held a helmet in the crook of his arm. Leahy hosted a cartoon program and pretended to broadcast from a space station orbiting Earth. Later, his show was supposedly beamed to us from the moon and points beyond.
We kids in central and western Kansas were lucky to have Major Astro. In between cartoons, he talked about rockets and the solar system, and led thousands of kids gently into the Space Age.
These were thrilling times. When Russia successfully launched a satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the Space Race was on. Tainted with Cold War threats and fears, the race wasn’t a friendly competition. Feeling the pressure, U.S. schools began to emphasize science and math. Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space on April 12, 1961. American Alan Shepherd followed a few weeks later on May 5.
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy challenged the country: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
July 1969: mission accomplished.
I’ve been thinking about Major Astro after hearing recent news that Tom Leahy’s widow, Wilma, had donated memorabilia from the TV program to the Kansas State Historical Society. Leahy died in 2010 at age 87.
Major Astro was a hero to Kansas children, an icon. If you mention the name to anyone who grew up in the western half of the state during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, you’ll likely have an instant bond. “Major Astro” is shorthand for “Hey, remember when you were a kid?”
On his show, the kind and fatherly Tom Leahy introduced cartoons like “Underdog,” “Road Runner,” and “Felix the Cat,” and he also showed some of the old “Superman” episodes.
After school, my brother Leon and I scooted down to the basement to watch “Major Astro” on our black-and-white 13” TV that pulled in the signal through an antenna at the side of our house.
“I won a set of 10 ride tickets at the state fair one September,” Leon remembered. “I had sent in a postcard with the three space words and he drew it from his squirrel cage on the air. The tickets came just in time, on the Saturday morning before we left for Hutch. You and I split them.”
I was watching with Leon when Major Astro pulled my brother’s postcard from the hopper. I don’t know which was more exciting, Leon winning the tickets, or having his existence recognized by Major Astro – on television!
“The family went to Hutch on another weekend to see Major Astro arrive in a red helicopter for the opening of a department or furniture store,” Leon said. “We stood in the parking lot, and he landed in a vacant lot near us. It was the first time I had seen a helicopter fly in real life.”
Major Astro’s presence was magical. And because of Major Astro’s influence, when Leon was about 10, he purchased a book that he treasured for years, a highly technical manual for building, testing and launching homemade rockets.
Even our mother, who didn’t watch TV with us, used Major Astro’s catch phrases. When getting in the car, Mom often said, “Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for lift-off.”
When I mentioned Major Astro on Facebook the other day, my cousin Laramie Unruh, who lives near Wichita, posted his prized personalized and autographed photo of Major Astro.
Laramie wrote, “Shortly before he passed, my family and I were at a local restaurant and we saw Mr. Leahy come in with his family. As we left, I went over to their table and I told him, ‘Some people still think it is pretty exciting to see Major Astro.’ His kind smile showed his appreciation.”
The Space Age was a fascinating era, and Major Astro put interplanetary travel into a language kids could understand, making it easier for us to dream big. Every day he projected us all into outer space, signing off with “Happy orbits, boys and girls.”
Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh
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