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Folks You Should Know: Jimmie 'O'Dell' Carroll

Amanda Marsh • Oct 10, 2012 at 11:15 AM

A clear container overflowing with newspaper clippings and tattered photos sits in an old farm house on Possum Creek Road. At first glance, the treasures are typical of any family collection, but a closer look reveals its connection to a well-known account of courage and inspiration.

Jimmie "O’Dell" Carroll, the owner of these mementos, is one of the original "Rocket Boys" from Coalwood, West Virginia. He and five other high school buddies, including their rocket-crazed leader Homer Hickam, spent the latter half of their high school career at "Cape Coalwood" building and launching small rockets. The group’s relentless rocketry efforts led them to win a gold medal at the national science fair.

Carroll, a Scott County resident for 35 years, has his own copy of the gold medal, as well as plenty of photos with his fellow Rocket Boys as they traveled throughout the country to meet fans and inspire youngsters to pick up a book and follow their dreams.

The "hoopla," as Carroll calls it, began after Hickam wrote a book documenting the Rocket Boys’ teenage adventures. The young boys became fascinated with amateur rocketry following the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite in 1957. The bestselling book was made into a feature film, "October Sky."

Even 14 years after the book’s release, both the novel and the film (starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal) have a fan base that is large enough to warrant its own yearly celebration. The annual Rocket Boys/October Sky Festival was held Oct. 5-7 at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, W. Va.

"The fans come from everywhere," Carroll said. "Dad had a journal from Coalwood and I think someone from about every nation had been there and signed that thing when they came to the festival."

The festival relocated from Coalwood to Beckley this year, and Carroll planned to be in attendance along with Roy Lee Cook, Billy Rose and Homer Hickam. Scott Miles, who plays Hickam’s older brother Jim in "October Sky," was also scheduled to be at the festival.

On Friday, there were several screenings of "October Sky" scheduled with commentary provided by the Rocket Boys. Saturday’s schedule was jam-packed with music, an appearance by the Mountaineer Area Robotics Team, a paper airplane contest, a chili cook-off, and, of course, - rocket launches.

Before getting into Rocket Boy-mode, Carroll took a walk down memory lane along with his classmates who were there to see the launches of "Auk 1" and "Miss Riley." The Big Creek High School class of 1960 reunion was held the weekend before the festival.

Carroll was ecstatic after discovering his senior yearbook buried in the plastic bin full of Rocket Boy regalia. He flipped through the pages and immediately found the portraits of his rocket musketeers. Carroll, who was known as O’Dell in high school, had a flat top and a warm smile. He was voted best all-around and was involved in almost every club from the thespians to the student council.

"I wasn’t very big, but I learned to be funny. I wanted to make friends with everyone," Carroll said.

The yearbook contains countless well wishes from classmates, including Hickam, who went by Sonny in high school.

"Don’t forget our rocket shoots and all our fun building the blockhouse and stuff," Hickam wrote to Carroll in 1960.

Miss Freda Riley, one of the Rocket Boys’ biggest supporters at Big Creek High School, scribbled a "Best Wishes" beside her portrait.

Perhaps neither of the boys realized that those rocket launches would play an integral part of their lives and would keep them bonded together for 52 years past high school.

"How many people get to have their life made into a major motion picture?" Carroll said. "People are always saying to me, ‘Jimmie, I saw your movie last night. It was on HBO. '"

Carroll also treasures the footage of his father who was interviewed along with the other Rocket Boys for the special edition DVD of "October Sky." He passed away last year at the age of 93.

All the Rocket Boys still stay in touch by phone, but don’t see each other as regularly as they did following the book’s release. Carroll says one of the highlights of all the "hoopla" was meeting John Glenn while at the Smithsonian in 2000. Nowadays, he stays closer to home and speaks to science classes and rocket-obsessed Boy Scouts.

"That’s the best part about all of this," he said. "We met incredible people and it’s a good motivational story. That’s what we’re about - trying to get kids interested in math and science."

The festival is a yearly chance for the Rocket Boys to reunite and chat with fans. Shooting off rockets is just a bonus.

For more information about the Rocket Boys/October Sky Festival, visit http://rocketboysfestival.com/.

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