DERRY — He was the hometown hero and someone who reached for the stars.
Anyone living in the region on May 5, 1961, may recall the day as one of lofty excitement and plenty of hometown pride as East Derry native Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American in space aboard Freedom 7.
And Shepard's historic journey to the skies is still honored 58 years later at the Derry History Museum, with permanent archival materials and displays showing Shepard's local life and journey that catapulted the 38-year-old into space and put the small town of Derry on the map.
Derry became known as "Spacetown, U.S.A." following Shepard's 15 minutes of space fame with the souvenirs to prove it — from postcards and T-shirts to commemorative ashtrays and paperweights.
The Eagle-Tribune and its sister paper, the Derry News followed the hometown boy's journey, from stories of flight preparations to celebrations that followed his return to Earth.
The Derry News ran a pictorial spread in May 1961 with captions describing the time.
"The warm smile of Comdr. Alan Shepard's wife, the affectionate kiss Alan B. Shepard Sr., gives his wife, and the physical checkup given the first U.S. astronaut into space, are some of the memorable scenes that will make May 5 a day that will long be remembered, not only by the Shepard family, but all the residents of Derry, a small, unknown town in New Hampshire before the space flight and now known to millions of Americans all over the United States," the newspaper reported.
The Derry News also said local crowds in Derry had become "hometown folk" launched into "orbits of joy" when Shepard safely returned to Earth following his 15-minute mission into space.
The career and life of Alan Shepard would be followed for decades as he lived and worked in Texas. He eventually took another lofty journey, this time to the moon aboard Apollo 14 in 1971.
Shepard's is a 1940 graduate of Pinkerton Academy. The school named its teams the Astros following the space flight. The high school's mascot is "Astro Man" and buildings on campus are named in his honor.
A portion of Interstate 93 is also dedicated in Shepard's honor.
Pinkerton officials said it's important to keep Shepard's memory and contributions alive all these years later.
"Every time one of our sports teams takes to the field or court, we are honoring Alan Shepard," Pinkerton Headmaster Timothy Powers said. "He remains one of our most esteemed graduates because of the remarkable contributions he made to our country's progress. He once said, 'I must admit, I am a piece of history after all.' For us, Alan Shepard will always be an important piece of our history at Pinkerton Academy."
Derry's history museum has Shepard on display, with an entire room devoted to the local fly boy and his early life in Derry and future career as pilot and astronaut.
Family artifacts, stamps, photos, and other Shepard memorabilia line the shelves and walls of the museum room. A long line of visitors came to the museum last weekend to learn more about East Derry's fly boy and see the displays. There were also videos playing of Shepard's moon walk.
"We need heroes," said museum curator Mark Mastromarino. "(Shepard) will also be a hero here in Derry."
Shepard tops the hero list for local historian and author Richard Holmes, who noted that the town is losing people who may have known the astronaut while growing up in Derry.
"There are less and less people who knew him at all," Holmes said.
Holmes said that Shepard is still highly known around the world.
A Derry News editorial published following Shepard's death in 1998 described the hometown hero as a "cool, distant dreamer" who had grand aspirations while living in this modest southern New Hampshire community.
"His family was one of the most prominent in town, with large homes in East Derry and a cottage on Island Pond; he was friends with or played sports with some of the modern leaders in town," the editorial states. "When they think of him, the date will always be May 5, 1961, and Freedom 7 will be tumbling from the heavens as a conquering comet of space."
For Holmes, Derry is steeped in history with some notable names that called this area home. Joining Shepard on the famed list are poet Robert Frost, Matthew Thornton, and John Stark.
"There's something in the water," Holmes said.
To learn more about Alan Shepard's life in Derry and his career as an astronaut, visit the Derry History Museum in the lower level of the Adams Memorial Building on Broadway. For hours and information, call 603-434-1247 or visit derryhistorymuseum.org.