In the first half of the 1980s, I was making my way through college at the University of California’s “farm school” in the crunchy, sleepy town of Davis. Between working toward a BA in Science (with an eye toward marine biology and aquaculture) and keeping my GPA up with classes in world religions, philosophy, and advanced poetry, I spent a lot of time at the Women’s Resources Center.
I can’t remember which building it was in, but remember it was in the basement. It was cool, happy, and had couches. I’d lay down there for hours memorizing chemical equations and Elizabeth Bishop. I loved listening to the women’s voices swirling around me. These were women living beyond the social norms in so many different ways. I loved the creative energy.
It was in the hallway outside the Women’s Center that I met Sally Ride. I have no idea what she was doing on campus. Maybe she came to give a talk. But as I was heading in to the Center, she was heading out, walking with a couple of friends and all laughing hysterically. She was slim, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and no shoes. (I have no idea why she wasn’t wearing shoes. I just remember thinking, “Wow! It must be nice to walk barefoot after having to wear those heavy space suits.” Though I realize now that they didn’t have to wear those lead-lined boots in the shape shuttle!)
I can’t remember if she was wearing the shirt or if one of her friends had it on, but it said “Ride Sally, Ride!”–the refrain from Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” that became her motto worldwide, as the first American woman in space and the youngest.
I stopped her in the hallway and shook her hand, introduced myself, saying how excited I was to meet her and that I was studying science at UC Davis (women in science was a passion of hers, as her career attests). She shook my hand and thanked me for introducing myself and off they went. “Ride, Sally Ride,” I called out as they left and she waved her hand.
She was an extraordinary woman. Brilliant and gutsy and with enormous personal courage and conviction. Her work on the Challenger shuttle disaster investigation committee was nothing short of heroic as she supported whistleblowers who had been saying for months that the O-rings were going to fail in cold weather. Her work on climate change has been prophetic.
Both Sally’s parents were Presbyterian elders and her sister in a Presbyterian minister. Below is an excerpt from Sally’s sister, Bear Ride:
“Sally Ride was the first American woman to go into space and she was my big sister. Sally died peacefully on July 23rd after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. I was at her side. We grew up in Encino, CA. Our parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, encouraged us to study hard, to do our best and to be anything we wanted to be. In 1983 Newsweek quoted our father as saying, ‘We might have encouraged, but mostly we just let them explore.’ Our parents encouraged us to be curious, to keep our minds and hearts open and to respect all persons as children of God. Our parents taught us to explore, and we did. Sally studied science and I went to seminary. She became an astronaut and I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
Sally lived her life to the fullest with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. Sally died the same way she lived: without fear. Sally’s signature statement was ‘Reach for the Stars.’ Surely she did this, and she blazed a trail for all the rest of us.”
Sally, Ad astra per alas fideles! (“to the stars on the wings of the faithful”)
More on the death and life of Sally Ride:
Sally Ride pushed us to understand our climate and our world by Philip Bump
American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling by Denise Grady