For weeks, I have been wishing that I could introduce Kendrick Castillo to Roger Boisjoly. But the irreversibility of human mortality has made this an impossible dream.
Nonetheless, it is a dream I invite you to share.
Kendrick Castillo died on May 7, 2019, at the age of 18. He was the aspiring engineer who stood up to the shooter at the STEM School Highlands Ranch, losing his own life and thereby saving the lives of others.
Roger Boisjoly died on Jan. 6, 2012, at the age of 73. He was the engineer who tried to save the lives of the seven crew members on the space shuttle Challenger. Boisjoly had come to an early recognition that the o-rings, essential for preventing the escape of gases from the solid rocket booster launching the orbiter, were likely to fail under extreme cold. In the night and morning of Jan. 27 and 28, 1986, a management team at Morton Thiokol overruled Boisjoly’s pleadings for a delayed launch.
It is crucial to note at the start that these men’s lives are utterly incomparable. Boisjoly tried to protect his fellow human beings and lived into his eighth decade. Castillo moved forward to protect his fellow human beings, thereby losing his life before he could enter his third decade.
And yet their stories both serve to reawaken us to the heroism in our midst.
The strenuous challenges of the Old West in the 19th century, traditional nostalgia tells us, set the stage for bravery, hardiness and heroism. Living in such different times, few of us in the 21st century West wake with the expectation that we’ll encounter a hero or two in the course of the day.
But that diminished expectation deserves some rethinking.
After the Challenger crew perished, Boisjoly never retreated and never fell silent, and his testimony played an important part in the findings of the commission that investigated the disaster. But he endured the fate of the whistleblower, shunned at his workplace and in his community.
Thirty years ago, I invited Roger Boisjoly to visit the University of Colorado. When he met with students, one question came up: “Knowing that you failed to delay the launch, and knowing that you would be subject to retaliation for speaking out, do you think now that you should have just stayed quiet?”
As this question hung in the air, it seemed to me that all the students in the room held their breath.
But then Boisjoly answered: “Of course, I would speak out again. I would just try to do it more effectively.”
And, with that, the students exhaled with relief.
At the end of the class visit, students flocked to the front of the room and clustered around Boisjoly. As I tried to clear the room so the next class could enter, I felt the full force of the students’ desire to be in the company of a hero.
In his presentations on ethics and professional practice, delivered at college campuses across the nation, Boisjoly showed his audiences small samples of an o-ring. During his visit in Boulder, I asked him if I could keep one of those samples.
For 30 years, I have carried that o-ring sample with me as a talisman of courage.
Before he left us, Kendrick Castilllo gave us a lasting reminder that heroes are in our midst. On his own, he had figured out the message that Roger Boisjoly’s company gave to me, and Kendrick carried that message at the core of his soul.
If Kendrick’s parents, John and Maria Castillo, would like to have that o-ring sample, I would bring it to them in an instant.
Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
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