By Michael Hill
By now, astronauts and Captains Mark and Scott Kelly have had their share of countdowns.
But, today Pleasantdale Elementary in West Orange did two more — one to take the wraps off the new school sign with a painting of Mark and Scott in a spaceship. And one to cut the ribbon on the grand opening of the school they attended that now bears their name, Kelly Elementary.
“It’s exciting to be here obviously and it’s a great honor,” Mark said.
The Kellys say they never imagined their elementary school would ever be renamed in their honor. The district says renaming the school was a no brainer.
“We unanimously welcomed the opportunity to honor and recognize our most distinguished alumni,” said West Orange School Board President Laura Lab.
Family, friends and former classmates watched and welcomed the renaming and remembered the identical twins.
“It was obvious from the start they were going to achieve great … no, they were knuckleheads. Very good guys,” said former high school classmate Peter Mathern.
The Kellys’ mom was the first female police officer in town in the ’70s. A former teacher recalls a conversation with her.
“She was concerned because she told me they had no fear. I saw it more as a curiosity and had a willingness to look around and see what’s there,” said former fifth grade teacher Susan Pozner.
Years later, both Mark and Scott would explore space for NASA after their Navy careers. Scott recently sent images and did a talkback from space with the school from his mission that set the American record for consecutive days aboard the International Space Station — 340.
“Amazing,” Scott said.
Mark Kelly said school at first was a struggle and he shared how practice, perseverance and pursuit of dreams can pay off.
“How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become,” he said.
A lesson the high school swim coach said the Kellys lived by.
So they came in not knowing much at all about sports? “Not much. Nope. Not much. And when they left, you know, they were the cornerstone of the program,” said Ed Jung.
“If we expect little of them, they will achieve little. If we believe in them and we expect a great deal of them, they will achieve a great deal,” said Montclair State University President Susan Cole.
Scientists say Scott’s record-breaking trip laid the groundwork for something bigger.
“Hopefully one day in my lifetime I’ll see one of you guys or girls step foot on Mars,” Scott said.
Mark — a huge advocate of public education — says it’s possible.
“The money we invest on education is the best dollars the government can spend,” he said.
The Kellys say here’s the proof.