Yankee Classic: Christa Mcauliffe's Shadow
“In the early days, I really looked at it with humor,” he said. “All the acronyms — I thought it was funny. It was not of our world. I watched it all with a sense of delight.”
All through the training in Houston, the weightless flights in the “Vomit Comet,” the press conferences, Hohler enjoyed what he thought of as a nice story about a local woman. He knew Christa was one of the favorites to win the coveted spot, but it was hard to take it seriously until July 19, when the announcement was made at the White House.
“Only a small pool of reporters was allowed into the Roosevelt Room. I was down in the White House Press Room watching it on TV with some other reporters when, two or three minutes before the announcement, somebody came running through yelling, ‘It’s the one from New Hampshire!’ Somebody upstairs had leaked it. I had a moment of shock, then I ran for a phone to call the office in Concord. Then I remembered they were watching it on TV and felt foolish. I just wanted to tell somebody.”
She let me ride away from the White House with her after a dozen reporters had tried and failed. I sat with her an hour later when she called her husband Steven to share the news. She cried for joy, and I fidgeted, waiting for her patience with me to wear thin. It never did.
Between July and January Hohler spent almost all his time writing about Christa. He spent more time with her family, it seemed, than with his own. During that time he and his wife separated. “It had been building up for years,” he said. “I don’t know if I can say what effect this had on it. I’ve always been somebody who works a lot of hours. I’d told my wife before we got married that I wanted to be a sportswriter, and sportswriters travel a lot. She said she understood that. But I didn’t realize the effect it would have on my daughter. Whenever I got on the bus to go to the airport in Boston, I’d see her crying, ‘Daddy, don’t go!’ I feel a lot of guilt about that.”
I wrote about Christa for seven months, hopscotching from Concord and Houston to Florida and her hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts. My 6-year-old daughter lost me to a teachernaut.
“Christa this, Christa that,” she said. “When’s it going to be over?”
Like any good reporter, Hohler becomes involved personally with the people he writes about, even as he worries about his responsibility for exposing those people in print to strangers. During one break in the story, when Christa was incommunicado in Houston, he came back to Concord to write his normal city columns for a while. By some grim fate, one of them was on the suicide of a man he had written about earlier. “I was happy to get back to the Christa story.”
Somehow, despite the media crush, Hohler and McAuliffe crossed the line between reporter and subject and became friends. “Maybe it was because we were of the same generation,” he said. “She was 37, I’m 34. When she talked about the impact of President Kennedy on her, I felt the same thing. We’re both Democrats from Boston, we were affected by Vietnam … all through this thing, when she talked about her life, I was saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know.’ ”
They ate together, shared their thoughts, talked about their children. “I’m as cynical as the next reporter, and I don’t start gushing over my subjects,” Hohler said. “But I felt some sort of affinity with her. It was never something we talked about, but we were friends. She would call me even when she didn’t have to call me.”