editor's essay

Aiming High

Marcia Jarvis and then UB President Steven Sample holding the flag that flew aboard the Challenger.

Marcia Jarvis and then UB President Steven Sample in 1987 holding the flag that flew aboard the Challenger. Photo: University Archives.

I’ve listened to dozens of commencement speeches while attending family graduations or covering ceremonies on campus. Some are easily forgettable, while others are memorable for their rhetoric or the speaker’s renown. Only every once in a while does a speech become truly legendary, reverberating in the collective consciousness for decades after that year’s graduates have left the stage.

Such was the case with the commencement address delivered 30 years ago in Alumni Arena to graduates of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. On May 18, 1985, hundreds gathered to hear electrical engineering alumnus Gregory Jarvis (BS ’67) talk about how hard work—and a refusal to skate by—can lead to the realization of one’s dreams. “No matter how adverse your circumstances or how difficult or easy the task, you can reach for the stars by always giving your best—in performance and in attitude,” Jarvis said in his afternoon address. The words may have come off as typical commencement discourse had they been uttered by a different speaker. But the 40-year-old Hughes Aircraft Company engineer had been named a payload specialist aboard the upcoming Space Shuttle Challenger mission, beating out 599 other Hughes Aircraft applicants for the coveted assignment.

Just eight months later, commencement jubilation and Jarvis’ core message to “reach for the stars” turned to tears and somber reflection. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded moments after launching off the coast of Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members aboard. For Jarvis, it was to have been his first space voyage, after being bumped from several earlier flights. He remained enthusiastic and resolute despite the delays. “Better late than never,” he said, “because it will be an opportunity that few people will have.” In a memorable bow to his alma mater, he carried a UB flag on the shuttle, along with one from Northeastern University, where he’d earned a master’s degree. Transporting the white silk flag bearing the UB seal was, said Jarvis, “a small token for the way [UB] unlocked my future.” In a heartrending detail, the UB flag was later recovered from the Challenger’s wreckage.

A week after the explosion, the university paid tribute to Jarvis at a solemn ceremony in Slee Hall. And in what must be one of the most unusual campaigns to name a building, that spring a small group of students nailed a sign reading “Jarvis Hall” to the Engineering East building. The next year, the university made it official, dedicating Gregory B. Jarvis Hall at a ceremony attended by his widow, Marcia (BA ’68), who presented the flag to the university. It is now kept in protective storage in the University Archives.

Today, engineering students entering Jarvis Hall can pause to view a mounted display with photographs and memorabilia about Jarvis’ life and contributions. While most of this year’s graduating engineering students weren’t alive at the time of the Challenger disaster, this display ensures they can still benefit, at least indirectly, from Jarvis’ inspiring remarks and his determination to reach ever upward.

Ann Whitcher Gentzke, Editor