• Helen Unruh at the Cosmosphere.

Museum's empty space: Unruh's efforts will be missed when she retires after 25 years at the Cosmosphere

Monday, September 25, 2006

As she guided first-graders through the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, Helen Unruh pointed out an astronaut spacesuit exhibit and felt a tug on her sleeve from a little girl.

"How do you get that guy to stand so still?" Unruh recalls the girl asking.

Unruh, caught off guard by the question, recovered by asking: "Do any of you know what a mannequin is?"

"And then this little boy said, 'Yeah, it's somebody dead who's wearing clothes,' " Unruh said, laughing.

"There's just story after story."

The latest story is that after 25 years at the Cosmosphere, Unruh will leave full-time employment Oct. 1 as director of membership and special projects at the museum. She will continue to assist Cosmosphere President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Ollenburger on special projects.

'Twinkling star'

She'll miss standing in the Cosmosphere lobby, watching people come in and say, "Wow!"

"I always want to run over and say, 'It's just the beginning,' " Unruh said.

"This is Patty Carey's twinkling star that she put right here in Hutchinson, Kansas."

Carey was the dreamer, the investor and the hands-on developer of the Cosmosphere, which opened in its present building in 1980.

"Just the most remarkable woman that I have ever met," Unruh said.

Carey died in 2003, and businessman Norman Krause, longtime member of the Cosmosphere board, died in 2005.

Max Ary, president and chief executive officer of the museum from 1976 to 2002, is currently out on bond as he appeals his 2005 conviction in federal court on 12 counts, including theft of property from the Cosmosphere.

"Helen represents really the last of the staff that has been there since the beginning," Ary said last week from his home in Wichita.

Ease back into teaching

Unruh quit her job as a high school English teacher after her children were born. To ease back into teaching, she took a part-time job as a ticket-taker at the Cosmosphere in August 1981.

In 1982, she heard Carey and Ary talking about the need to have an employee in the museum. She quickly volunteered.

"We all agreed that we needed to give guided tours, so with a group of volunteers, we all went through the training," Unruh said.

She discovered when she spoke about astronauts, mentioning such names as Neil Armstrong or Alan Shepard, the particularly young visitors eagerly chirped up.

"Yeah, I know him," or, "He's my uncle," or, "My dad's an astronaut," they would say.

Once Unruh overheard an apparent father-son conversation, with the father saying, "Now you know we never landed on the moon. It was just all done in Hollywood. It was staged. You see this spacecraft? They could have filmed it right here."

Space camp

"I think that this opportunity to continually learn has just been such a gift to me," Unruh said.

A fresh opportunity for Unruh came in 1985, when the first five-day residential future astronaut training program for middle-school-age children opened. The initial class consisted of about 23 boys and one girl.

Ary taught the sessions at first, but as the space camp program expanded and included trips to Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Unruh took on more responsibilities.

She made so many trips to Texas - about 50 - that she was named an Honorary Texan, with a document signed by then-Gov. Ann Richards to prove it.

The chance for level-two space campers to travel to Texas spurred applications, and that led to waiting lists.

Unruh called one Kansas boy, who was also in 4-H, with news that a spot had opened up and he was eligible to come to camp.

"I heard him yell in the background, 'Sell my cow, Dad, I'm going to camp.' "

'Positive influence'

When Brandon Parks, a college-age counselor at the space camp for three summers later married, Unruh received an invitation to the wedding.

"I probably call her up twice a year, and that's probably average for the group of friends that I have," said Joel Kivett, a space camp graduate and camp counselor, about Unruh.

Parks is a trained mechanical engineer employed at Cessna Aircraft Co. in Wichita. Kivett is a graphic designer in the Kansas City area, involved in aviation design work.

"I think the biggest impact Helen had on me was teaching me how to be professional," Parks said. She stressed to the groups heading to the Johnson Space Center that the Cosmosphere's reputation was at stake and to conduct themselves well.

"Helen often placed me into leadership roles at a younger age than many of my peers," said Jeff Tuxhorn, who noted that boosted his confidence.

Tuxhorn, a shuttle rendezvous/proximity operations instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center, described Unruh as a "tremendous positive influence."

Packing the arena

Ary was dubious when Unruh wanted to bring Kansas astronaut Steve Hawley to the Sports Arena to address high school students.

"Good, but you don't have much time," Ary said he cautioned.

He suggested a much smaller venue to avoid embarrassment.

When the day of Hawley's visit arrived, about 150 to 200 school buses filled the Sports Arena parking lot and more than 6,000 high school students packed the arena, an admiring Ary recalled.

The Cosmosphere did not focus entirely on youths.

An Elderhostel program began in 1995, with participants age 55 and older signing up for their own space camp.

"They were willing to try anything and were supportive of each other," Unruh said of the "adventurous" senior citizens.

"They're how I want to be when I am 75," she said.

One of the more unusual tasks Unruh performed was on a return trip from the Johnson Space Center. She was charged with carrying back a moon rock, packed in a triangular bright blue box that was marked "Critical Space Item."

Guard it with your life. Oh, and be inconspicuous, she was told.

Mission completed.

All about people

If there were a definition entry for "people person" in the dictionary, Unruh's picture would be next to it, Ollenburger said.

There is genuine interest on her part to get to know people, combined with a humble spirit and desire to deflect attention from herself, the Cosmosphere's president said.

As director of membership, Unruh was often the connection between members and the museum. More than 1,100 entities have a membership in the Cosmosphere. Dues generate a very small portion of museum revenue, but members and volunteers are considered as virtual ambassadors for the Cosmosphere.

Unruh, 60, liked to mix humor with work.

"Life needs to be fun," she said.

Unruh had a tradition of dressing up for work as a little old lady on her birthdays. Sometimes, she completely fooled younger staff in the get-up.

Looking ahead

After retiring, Unruh plans to assist her husband, Wayne, in his business, First Team Sports Inc. She also is interested in getting back in the classroom as an elementary school volunteer.

Ollenburger said he's really happy that Unruh has this new opportunity "but equally thrilled that we get to keep her."

She will continue to be involved in special projects at the Cosmosphere.

As she's said of visitors to the museum, "Once they're here, they're hooked."