From Columbus Junction to helping others reach for stars Wildcats assistant coach lived movie life

Contributed photo

Columbus assistant coach Hal Prior talks to the Wildcats' cross-country teams earlier this year.
Contributed photo Columbus assistant coach Hal Prior talks to the Wildcats' cross-country teams earlier this year.

COLUMBUS JUNCTION — Hal Prior has lived the kind of life movies are made about.

In fact, the Columbus Junction native has an indirect connection to the hit TV series, ‘The Big Bang Theory.’

Prior, who grew up on a farm near Columbus Junction and graduated from Columbus Junction High School in 1954, went on to a long career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. NASA was established in 1958, succeeding the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

Prior went on to work for Boeing and McDonald-Douglas, where he played an instrumental part in launching both the Apollo and Space Station projects.

Prior, who is 82 years old, isn’t one to sit still and watch life go by.

Since moving back to his hometown from Houston, Prior has spent 20 years on the Columbus Junction city council and now serves as mayor pro tem.

Prior, wanting to give back to the youth in the community that gave hm his start, has spent the better part of the last 20 years as an assistant cross country and track coach for Columbus Community High School, sometimes paid, but mostly on a volunteer basis.

Prior is living life to the fullest and giving back to the community which has given him so much through the years.

“I love it. I’ve always been passionate about working with kids. When I graduated from high school, I got a chance to go to Cornell College to run and got some of my education paid for. I had a successful career there and I’ve always said, ‘I’m going to repay that for some kids,’” Prior said. “I like to work with kids. I enjoy it. It keeps me young, too. I’m 82-years old now and still plugging on. There are days when I’m tired, but it’s fun. Each year is a new crop of kids. There are a lot of good kids. There are always good kids coming through. It’s a challenge. You get these kids with some talent and it’s a challenge to get them better.”

Prior got his start in athletics at Columbus Junction back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But it wasn’t until he got to Cornell College in Mount Vernon that he developed a true passion for running.

Even when he and his wife moved to St. Louis for 10 years, then moved to Houston when he got offered a hob at NASA working with the space program, Prior never lost that love for running and competing. It was just put on the back burner for a while.

Prior was part of the team that got the Apollo space missions off the ground and eventually landed the first men on the moon. Prior worked side by side with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on a daily basis.

“I did astronaut training. I went down there during the early Apollo program. I had a bunch of responsibilities. I primarily was involved in science experiments on the surface and lunar photography and surface photography.”

His first couple of jobs were to help the astronauts, so they didn’t get lost on the moon. The second mission he actually developed the model for the simulator to fly to the moon.

“That was kind of interesting,” Prior said. “When they got back, I interviewed Pete Conrad and I said, ‘Did that simulator work?’ He said, ‘It was really strange. I trained in a simulator and when I got to where I could see the moon, I had this strange feeling it was somewhere I had been before and I was coming home.’”

Prior was proud of his contribution.

“It was a fun experience,” Prior said. “My office was on the same floor in the same building where (the astronauts) were. We got to know them. We worked with them every day. They were our co-workers.”

Later in his career he worked for more astronauts.

“They were my bosses,” Prior said. “I worked for Bob Obermeyer for several years and different ones. I always tell people, Mike Massimino, the astronaut on ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ I actually hired Mike. He worked for me. He came in as an intern from New York and he later became an astronaut.”

In fact, Prior often would not only spend the day working with the astronauts, he got to know them outside of the office, as well. To him, they were just ordinary people. To many others, they were heroes.

“People ask me, ‘Did you get the astronauts’ autographs?’ I said, ‘No. They were my co-workers.’ They were part of the crew. After a launch or after a day’s work, we would have meetings where we would try to solve problems and we would be debating and yelling and screaming at each other and throwing things across the room and trying to solve a problem. We would get all done and we would say, ‘Let’s go have a beer.’ It was a great environment,” Prior said. “It was a great experience for me and my family. My boys went to school with the astronauts’ sons. They played on sports teams together. You would go to the Little League park and there would be the astronauts sitting there watching their kids, too. It’s a fun experience. I keep telling people it’s a different environment. You never had a day where you didn’t like to go to work. We had people who sometimes the bosses would have to say, ‘You have to take the weekend off. You have to take some time off to rest.’ But every mission was like a Super Bowl. You planned for about a year and a half for a launch. It was like preparing for a Super Bowl. The excitement keeps building and building for a launch.”

After retiring from NASA, Prior landed a job with McDonald-Douglas, where he helped pioneer work on the Space Station, which is still in use today.

“After the Apollo program I worked with Skylab some,” he said. “Then I kind of went off and did some Earth resources work for a few years, being a geologist. I saw a little bit of Shuttle support. NASA gave me early retirement. I helped design a lot of experiments and supports for the Space Station. I got through that. I decided I had been there long enough so I said, ‘When they launch the Space Station, I’m going to retire.’ It was a great experience. ”

Retire, he did, but his work has impacted his family.

“Both of my sons worked in the space program,” Prior said. “My youngest son, Tom Prior, is still there. He and my grandson, Matthew, they are both big space nuts. He actually worked for a contractor, but his job is to protect the Space Station from being hit by orbital debris.”

Prior and his wife, Polly, decided to move back to Iowa and return to Hal’s hometown some 20 years ago. Not content to sit in a rocker on the front porch, the Priors have stayed active in the community and the school district.

Prior is paying a debt he feels he owes to the community and the youth. He wants the kids to have the same opportunities to succeed in life that he had. And it all started with his passion for running.

Be it ever so humble, there really is no place quite like home.

“It’s great being back here,” he said. “It’s where I grew up. It’s a different lifestyle. You don’t realize it until you move, but Houston is a big city and a lot of traffic, alot of crime. My son played basketball in high school. They played basketball at schools where you would park in the parking lot that had barbed-wire fence around it and the police would escort you across the street into the gym. You go into the gym and it’s divided in half where you and the home team can’t cross over. You have to stay on separate sides of the court. When the game is over they escort you out and dump you out in a bad area of town and hope you get home. It’s a whole lot more relaxing environment here. We love it. I always said I wanted to repay some young people for what I was able to get. My education experience allowed me to experience these kinds of things. I might have been a farm boy from Columbus Junction, but I worked hard and took advantage of the things that occurred and I was able to be a part of world history. I keep telling these kids every day, ‘You can be there, too. You just have to keep working toward a goal.’”

Whether running or working, motivation toward a goal is the impetus toreach for the stars.