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Gregory Jarvis: Buffalo’s connection to the Challenger disaster 30 years ago

Gregory Jarvis was supposed to come back to campus – along with the flag.

When the payload specialist lifted off on board the Challenger, 30 years ago on Thursday, the 1967 University of Buffalo graduate took with him a UB flag.

The Challenger’s fate – the space shuttle exploded slightly more than a minute after takeoff, killing Jarvis and six other crew members – remains etched in the nation’s history.

His death meant he would not return to UB to present the school flag he took on the mission.

Now, the flag – its cobalt and white colors still vibrant, its gold fringe intact – rests in the archives at UB’s North Campus in Amherst.

Marcia Jarvis, his widow, calls it a fitting home for the flag.

After all, it was her husband’s intention to return the flag to his alma mater as a gesture of gratitude to a place he appreciated, for all it had done for him through that point in his life.

“That was his way of thanking them,” said Marcia Jarvis, 70, who now lives in Colorado.

She gave the flag to UB on her husband’s behalf in 1987.

As the nation marks the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, the day serves as a moment of reflection for many, including surviving family members of the shuttle crew.

Three decades after the shuttle exploded – a moment watched by millions on television – the loss of the Challenger crew members can be seen as a tragedy to mourn, but also as an inspiration for courage and the quest to explore.

Jarvis said that when remembering the day, she tries to focus on the positive.

“I’m very proud of who he was,” Jarvis said of her husband of 18 years. “I’m proud of everything he did accomplish, while he was alive.”

‘Reflective day’

Marcia Jarvis, a Long Island native who graduated from UB in 1968, plans to spend Thursday’s anniversary quietly.

“That’s kind of my reflective day,” she said. “The families talk over the phone. I have a DVD that Greg’s co-workers at Hughes made for me about him – gave it to me a year after he died. I always look at that.”

The video shows her husband in different settings and also shows him walking out for the Challenger flight.

“That’s really special for me,” said Jarvis, who rarely talks to the press. “It just reminds me of a lot of different parts of his life.”

Jarvis married her husband on Long Island on June 15, 1968, a few weeks after her graduation from UB. Greg Jarvis grew up in Mohawk, a small village near Utica. After they were married, they moved to California. Greg Jarvis worked for Hughes Aircraft, a company where he was employed when, in 1984, he was selected for the space shuttle mission.

Besides his degree from UB, Greg Jarvis also completed graduate work in engineering at Northeastern University. He also carried a flag from that school with him on board the Challenger.

Marcia Jarvis said that, over the decades, the aftermath of the tragedy has changed, in some ways, for her.

“At the time, you’re in shock for a while,” she said. “It takes you a while to absorb things.”

But, she said, she believes lessons have come from what happened on Jan. 28, 1986.

“Mankind is not flawless,” she said. “We have to learn from our errors, our mistakes. I think there was a lot learned from that incident.”

Greg Jarvis’ UB speech

Greg Jarvis, who was 41 when he died, visited UB the spring before the Challenger launch.

In 1985, he gave a commencement address to the engineering school. He had earned an electrical engineering degree at UB, studying on the South Campus.

Marcia Jarvis remembers how hard her husband worked on his speech.

“He felt very humbled that they had asked him to do the speech,” she said.

She still recalls some of what he said to the students on that day in May.

He talked about setting goals and working hard for them – and about “reaching for the stars.”

When it came to his own life and work, she said, her husband made “five-year plans” in order to meet his own goals and accomplish what he wanted to achieve.

“And if he hadn’t reached that point, he wanted to know why,” she said.

Missed by friends

At UB, and among its alumni, people remember Greg Jarvis.

John T. Kociela of Amherst, who lived in the same dorm as Jarvis, said Jarvis’ role in the space program was both surprising and something of a natural match for the friend he knew.

“Greg was just a hard worker, and enjoyed doing adventures,” said Kociela, a 1968 UB graduate. “Those things seemed to fit really well to becoming an astronaut.”

On the day of the disaster, Kociela and his wife, who once traveled with the Jarvises on a vacation, offered a toast to their lost friend and schoolmate.

“It was a tragedy. But it was another venture into doing exploration,” he said.

“Sometimes, tragic things happen in life,” Kociela said. “You learn from those tragic things, and go on.”

Dr. Thomas P. Kenjarski, 71, a UB graduate and a dentist who now works in Naples, N.Y., recalled becoming friends with Jarvis in college in the 1960s.

“Greg befriended me, and was really a cool guy,” Kenjarski recalls. He said his college pal was a “great guy.”

“I just can’t say enough about him,” Kenjarski said. “He was just the salt of the earth. I miss him.”

Praised by faculty

Faculty members call Greg Jarvis an inspiration.

The commencement speech Jarvis delivered, less than a year before the Challenger launch, sought to motivate the young students in the astronaut’s audience, said Mark H. Karwan, who served as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“He gave a very – an excellent commencement address, and he ended with, they could reach for the stars,” said Karwan, a professor who has been at UB since 1976.

Hinrich R. Martens, who began teaching in the engineering department in 1962, recalls Jarvis from his classes.

When Jarvis was selected for the NASA mission, it was a source of pride for those who taught and knew him, he said.

“We all felt – excited is not the right word – but immensely pleased, that one of our students had been selected,” Martens said. “Like a parent, almost.”

“If one of them succeeds, like Greg did, it gives you a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment,” he said.

George C. Lee, a professor of civil engineering at UB since 1961, said that Jarvis was exceptional. UB, he said, with its “really outstanding” undergraduate students, is a place where astronauts can be trained.

“I expect in the future there will be more of these people – not necessarily to become astronauts, but to pursue advanced technology,” said Lee, a former engineering school dean at UB who retired in 2015.

The flag

Marcia Jarvis returned the flag from the shuttle flight to UB in October 1987.

An academic building on the North Campus, used by engineering students, was renamed Jarvis Hall at the time.

The flag rests in protective storage in the University Archives in Capen Hall.

The flag bears a UB insignia, with a buffalo, the letters “UB” and the date 1846.

The flag is kept in the archives instead of on public display for preservation purposes, said William Offhaus, senior staff assistant at the University Archives.

In the care of the University Archives – with its climate controlled stacks, as well as the security measures in place – the flag can be preserved for many future generations of UB faculty, staff and students, Offhaus said.

Those who have an interest may be allowed to see the flag and the other items the University Archives has collected about Gregory Jarvis and Jarvis Hall, he said.

‘Proud of who he was’

Since the accident, Marcia Jarvis has been a board member of the Challenger Center, an effort that began in the wake of the tragedy to promote learning and inspire interest in engineering, science, math and technology. Challenger Centers are located throughout the world, including one in Rochester.

In addition to Jarvis, the Challenger explosion claimed teacher-in-space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist.

After the disaster, Marcia Jarvis and his close friends spread Jarvis’ remains at sea off the California coast. She wrote a poem for the occasion.

“It is unfortunate that they had the couple accidents they did have,” she said of NASA’s space efforts. “But you can’t be angry. And I’m not frustrated. I’m just proud of who he was, and that he was doing something he really believed in, and felt lucky to be a part of.”

email: cvogel@buffnews.com