Listening to the news on the radio one morning last month, I learned that Huntsville, Ala., has been voted in a national poll as the best place in the United States to live, work and retire. I immediately thought of my time there teaching at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. For 15 years I “commuted” to Huntsville from the Northern Neck, 125 round trips in all, 743 miles house-to-house.
In 1950 the city’s population was 13,000. By the 1970s it was over 200,000, the growth being attributed to the burgeoning space industry. At the end of the Second World War in Europe, the German rocket scientists rushed to surrender to the Americans, not wanting to be taken captive by the Soviet Union, and not wanting to be held by the British after their munitions had bombed London and other British cities.
The U.S. Army brought them to America as Operation Paperclip, to be held at Fort Bliss, Texas. John Sparkman, then in his first term in the U.S. Senate, proposed bringing them to Redstone Arsenal outside his hometown of Huntsville. They arrived in Huntsville, many of them having learned English, thus beginning the path to the city ultimately calling itself, perhaps a bit euphemistically, “The Rocket Capital of the Universe.”
On their first day there, buses took them to the Huntsville City Public Library where 126 of them applied for library cards. To this day, that figure represents the highest one-day total of library cards issued by the library. The Germans settled into the community, and they began assimilating into many of the cultural activities.
Huntsville had become the first capital of Alabama with the ratification of the state constitution in 1819. Beginning in the 1950s a vibrant historic preservation interest developed aimed at preserving the historic core of the original town. That movement led to the reconstruction of Constitution Hall with a park of rebuilt structures around it. On one corner of the city square still stands the birthplace of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, the daughter of William Bankhead, who later became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The German contingent was led by Werner von Braun, who remained in Huntsville until moving to Washington in 1969. A few years later the city formulated plans for building a large civic center to be named in his honor. I attended the groundbreaking and had the opportunity to meet him briefly. One of the center’s claims to fame centers on Elvis Presley in that it was surpassed only by Las Vegas as having hosted the longest consecutive string of Elvis performances in history. I missed all of them.
After many of the Germans retired from NASA, some of them came to audit my classes on Russian history, and I would have them speak to the students about their wartime experiences. When Halley’s Comet made its swing through the atmosphere in 1985-1986, I went up on Monte Sano where Rudolf Hermann, Hitler’s former wind tunnel expert, showed me the comet through an enormous telescope. He explained that ironically, with this passage of the comet, which occurs every 75 years, we had the best spectrometry to observe it, but its passage was the most oblique recorded.
Huntsville is the home of the Alabama Space and Rocket Center which hosts an annual space camp for students and displays many of the artifacts from recent space history in its extensive museum. The Huntsville Symphony Orchestra is another of the cultural experiences available for residents and visitors., and the Tennessee River offers great fishing opportunities.
Huntsville is the seat of Madison County, which still is the largest cotton-producing county in Alabama. In my time, cotton fields remained interspersed with new residential neighborhoods.
Reflecting on my own Huntsville experience, I can understand why it received the accolades it did in the recent poll. Indeed, Huntsville is a great place to live, but it still is not the Northern Neck.