Hometown Hero Teaches Students Sky is not the Limit

Astronaut Jeffrey Williams
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Astronaut Jeffrey Williams

By Mike Simonson for VOA News


Just about everybody in Winter, Wisconsin knows about their local boy who made good.

Col. Jeffrey Williams has logged more days in space than almost any other American. The International Space Station, where the astronaut spent a great deal of time, is a long way from his small, rural hometown.

Population: 344

Even in the middle of the day, Main Street in the small north woods town is pretty quiet. There are no traffic jams, not even any traffic lights. The population of 344 people triples in the summer, when tourists flock to the area for what’s considered some of the best walleye and muskie fishing in the region.

Realtor Bob Biller has lived here his entire 69 years. He says Winter is a special place surrounded by farms, pine trees and lakes. It’s got a bank, a post office, and a co-op store.

“We call it Winter’s Wal-Mart. They have a variety of just about anything you want there,” he says.

Hometown boy

Winter also has one thing most towns, big or small, don’t have: its own astronaut.

Williams has logged more days in space than all but three other American astronauts. He just returned from his second stay onboard the International Space Station. He was Expedition 22 commander for half of the six-month-long mission.

Almost everyone at Winter School, from grades 1 through 12, knows him. This is the school Williams graduated from 34 years ago.

Nick Stengel was Williams’ technology teacher back then. He tells today’s students, who come from Winter and the surrounding communities, that no matter how humble their upbringing, their expectations should be limitless.

“When I’ve got kids who say to me, ‘Hey, I come from Winter. I can’t do this, I can’t do that. We’re such a small school.’ I say there are people who come out of this school, I give Jeff as an example,” says Stengel. “They’ve been very successful and you can do the same.”

Inspiring others

Like the other 336 students at Winter School, 11th grader Keela Strouf is proud that an astronaut attended her school.

“It makes me want to work harder and get something really good out of everything you do because the fact that we had an astronaut come from our little school just makes me want to go harder and reach all my goals.”

The really cool thing, as she puts it, is that she and other students got to ask Williams questions during a NASA International Space Station downlink in January as he orbited the planet.

“It was crazy,” says Keela. “I mean like, just the experience of getting to do that is just like beyond anything I’d get to do. You don’t expect that. It was really cool though.”

Senior Ryan Sajdera also participated in the space chat. He learned that astronauts use springs and pulleys to weigh objects in zero gravity.

“It was kind of neat knowing that they’re not even on this Earth and you’re talking to them,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s a cool experience.”

Sajdera is one of 28 students in Winter School’s graduating class. “Everybody says Winter’s small, nothing comes out of here but we’ve got one of the few [astronauts] came out of Winter, so that’s something to be proud of,” he said.

Reaching for the stars

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden hopes to get youngsters from all walks of life interested in space travel.

“That’s my challenge. When the President offered me this job, he gave me one instruction and one instruction only. It was to find a way for NASA to inspire young people,” says Bolden. “So that’s my challenge and we’re working hard on it. You know Jeff represents every kid’s dream around the world, not just in the U.S. So, it’s a special story.”

In addition to his talk with Winter School, Williams held several other Q&A’s with classrooms during his two International Space Station missions. He says it’s his way to share the unique experience.

“Hopefully we do bring inspiration to people to look past their horizons and be inspired to go beyond where otherwise they would go,” says Williams.

So people like Ryan Sajdera might decide that someday, they’d like to be a space scientist and visit the Moon or Mars.

“Exactly,” says Ryan. “I mean, coming from a small school, if you want to do something, go for it. That’s what Jeff Williams really conveys for our school.”

As a reminder that the sky is not the limit, the Winter Chamber of Commerce posted a sign on Highway 70, the main road into town.

It reads, “Welcome to Winter, Hometown of Jeffrey Williams, Astronaut.”