Jim Lovell brought a love of model rocketry, the rank of Eagle Scout, few finances and hopes of becoming a pilot when he came to UW-Madison in the fall of 1946 for the start of his freshman year.
To boost the small stipend he received for being a cadet in the U.S. Navy’s Flying Midshipman program, Lovell washed dishes and bused tables at Gannon’s Restaurant, 814 University Ave., just west of what is now East Campus Mall. He rented a room in a house on Keyes Avenue a few blocks off Monroe Street and furthered his income by caring for the rats and mice used by university researchers.
“On weekends, I would give them water and feed them and that kind of stuff,” Lovell said. “I didn’t have any money when I graduated from high school. My future was bleak except by some miracle this Navy program came along and I took it right away.”
It was a humble start to what would turn into a heroic career filled with dangerous military test flights and four trips into space, his last in 1970 as commander of Apollo 13. That final, well-documented mission almost ended in disaster but became one of the greatest stories in the history of space travel.
So when Lovell, 88, steps to the podium of the Kohl Center stage today to receive an honorary degree and give the commencement address, he doesn’t plan to retell the epic saga that captivated the world and, in 1996, was turned into a movie with Tom Hanks playing his role.
Instead, the graduate of Milwaukee’s Juneau High School who logged 715 hours in space and circled the earth 330 times says he wants to deliver a message that goes beyond a single story, regardless of its place in history.
“It’s not what I did but the impression I got from what I did,” Lovell said by telephone from his home in Lake Forrest, Illinois. “Life is a risk no matter what you do, whether you’re in space or just driving a car. I want to relate to people some of the positives I got out of the space program, ideas of good leadership, teamwork and using your initiative, which the Apollo 13 flight expressed quite well.”
Lovell was chosen to receive his honorary degree last year but was unable to make the spring commencement ceremony. Today’s event, recognizing students who completed their degree over the summer or this fall, begins at 10 a.m. and is free and open to the public.
“The Honorary Degrees Committee saw Lovell as the exemplification of the achievements we seek in an honorary degree recipient: great distinction in her or his chosen calling, allied with substantial contributions to the life of the broader community in the best traditions of the Wisconsin Idea,” said David McDonald, professor of history and chair of the committee.
Lovell was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but his father was killed in a car crash when he was about 5 years old. He and his mother lived with a relative in Indiana for two years before they ultimately settled in Milwaukee, where Lovell and his mother had an apartment on 35th Street between Wisconsin Avenue and West Wells Street.
Lovell had applied to the U.S. Naval Academy while in high school but was turned down so he entered a special program designed to school and train potential Navy pilots. He spent two years at UW-Madison before he transferred to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he completed his Bachelor of Science degree in 1952.
What followed was legendary in every sense of the word.
Lovell spent four years as a test pilot and later was the program manager for the F4H Phantom Fighter jet. He also served as a safety engineer with Fighter Squadron 101 at the Naval Air Station in Oceana, Virginia. He has logged more than 7,000 hours of flying time, more than half of that in jet aircraft, according to his NASA biography.
In 1962, Lovell, then 34, was selected as an astronaut and served as backup pilot for the Gemini 4 flight in June 1965. Less than six months later, in December of that year, Lovell and Frank Borman blasted off from earth on the Gemini 7 mission. The 14-day flight included the first rendezvous of two manned maneuverable spacecraft.
After his return to earth, Lovell traveled to Madison along with fellow astronaut and Sparta-native Deke Slayton, who was selected to pilot the second U.S. manned orbital spaceflight but was grounded in 1962 by an irregular heart rhythm. Slayton, who spent much of his NASA career as the director of flight crew operations, ultimately became the oldest person to fly in space at the time when, at 51 years old, he was the module pilot of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
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The duo’s 12-hour visit in February of 1966 was packed with events.
It included a press conference at Truax Field, an appearance at Memorial Union Theater before 1,300 college and high school students, live interviews on Wisconsin Public Television with UW-Madison scientists and a trip to the state Capitol. That’s where 2,000 people filled the rotunda, the East High School band performed and Lovell presented a Wisconsin flag he had carried into space.
There was a banquet at the Hotel Loraine put on by the Wisconsin Society of Professional Engineers while an estimated 3,500 people, many of them elementary school students, traveled to the UW Field House to hear Lovell and Slayton, “the spacemen,” speak.
“They didn’t have long hair, they didn’t dress like girls, and they didn’t carry guitars. They weren’t protesting anything,” wrote Steven Hopkins, assistant state editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. “They made quite a team on their visit here Thursday, and those who didn’t see them were the losers.”
Nine months later, Lovell was the commander of the four-day Gemini 12 mission with pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. That was followed in 1968 by the six-day, Apollo 8 journey, propelled by a Saturn V launch vehicle, a journey filled with firsts.
Lovell, Borman and William Anders were aboard the first manned spacecraft to leave earth’s orbit, circle the moon and return safely. They were also the first humans to see Earth as a whole planet, to see the far side of the moon and the first to witness an earthrise.
But it would be the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970 that would bring a near-death experience, the ultimate case of problem-solving and fame to Lovell and fellow astronauts John L. “Jack” Swigert and Fred W. Haise.
The 10-day mission was supposed to include landing on the moon to explore the Fra Mauro highlands but two days into the trip the ship’s cryogenic oxygen system failed, forcing the crew to work closely with Houston ground controllers to make modifications so they could return to earth.
Lovell said landing on the moon would have been the epitome of his career and initially he was frustrated about getting so close but not walking on the lunar surface. But while writing about the trip in his book “Lost Moon: the Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13,” Lovell said his thoughts changed.
“It suddenly dawned on me that even though I hadn’t made it I actually accomplished something and showed something to the people that the normal flights didn’t do,” Lovell said. “It showed how people working together as a team … how we could take an almost certain catastrophe and change it into a safe recovery. It was really a classic case of crisis management.”
Lovell retired as an astronaut in 1973 and entered the private sector, where he worked for a marine towing company in Houston and became president and CEO in 1975. Two years later, in 1977, he became president of Fisk Telephone Systems in Houston.
When the company was sold he moved to the Chicago suburbs, where he was a group vice president for Centel Corp. until his retirement in 1991.
Lovell and his wife of 65 years, Marilyn, have four adult children, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Lovell stays in shape by walking 2 miles a day with his 11-year-old dog, Toby, an animal he rescued from the pound seven years ago.
Besides Lovell and Slayton, other astronauts with Wisconsin ties include shuttle astronauts Mark Lee of Viroqua, Dan Brandenstein of Watertown and Leroy Chiao of Milwaukee. The most recent to be in space was Jeffrey Williams, who was born in Superior and grew up in Winter, a small community in Sawyer County, about 32 miles west of Park Falls.
Williams, whose most recent mission was completed in September, has 534 days in space, much of it aboard the International Space Station, a record for a U.S. citizen.
“It’s born in the type of people (they are), not so much where they are,” Lovell said when asked about Wisconsin astronauts. “These are the people that all like to live on the edge just a little bit. Especially in the early days, these were people who were willing to take a risk.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at
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