By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – It was very saddening to hear of the passing of Sally Ride, taken by cancer at the young age of 61.

Listen to Jon’s commentary:

She wasn’t just the first American woman to fly a space mission, she was, at the time, the youngest American ever, period.

A brilliant woman who excelled at tennis as well as physics, her integrity was so well-respected that she became the only person to serve on the panels investigating both the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters.

In her career, and her recent work promoting science education for children, Sally Ride was, as the president put it in a statement, “a national hero and a powerful role model.”

But for me, the most memorable story about Sally Ride involves a guy from Lowell, and a hug.

Ride crossed paths with Roger Mark Boisjoly, a Lowell native with a mechanical engineering degree from UMass/Lowell, at the hearing into the Challenger explosion, where he proved to investigators that he had warned his employers about the danger of seals in the shuttle’s booster rockets breaking in the cold.

Documents showed they blew him off. The launch had been delayed twice already, and there was corporate pressure to give NASA the green light.

But his whistle-blowing cost Boisjoly. His bosses, co-workers and even some friends shunned him. He suffered physically and psychologically for the rest of his life, but clung to the memory of one compassionate gesture of support he did receive.

It came after he has testified to the Challenger commission. As the press looked on, Sally Ride came over to Boisjoly and hugged him.

She had as many connections to the aerospace establishment as anyone, but she saw that he had tried to help, and honored his courage with a public display no one else had the courage – or heart – to make.

“She was the only one,” Boisjoly said in an emotional interview years later. “The only one.”

Now that’s a great American.

You can listen to Keller At Large on WBZ News Radio every weekday at 7:55 a.m. and 12:25 p.m. You can also watch Jon on WBZ-TV News.

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