WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange’s internationally famous astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly returned to their hometown May 19 for Kelly Family Day, an out-of-this-world recognition of their NASA accomplishments that included the renaming of Pleasantdale Elementary School in their honor.
Hundreds of students and teachers joined residents, government officials and Kelly relatives in counting down — mission-control style — the unveiling of the new Kelly Elementary School sign on the school’s front grounds before bursting into wild cheers of excitement. Afterward, the fifth-grade chorus gave its first public performance of the new school song.
Yet despite that honor and the praise heaped upon them over the course of an hourlong ceremony, the Kelly brothers remained humble upon taking the podium. After sharing a few memories of when they attended Pleasantdale — Scott Kelly even pointed out the exact tree he remembers making artwork under during art class — NASA’s only pair of identical twin astronauts shifted their focus to sending a message to the assembled students. Specifically, they urged them never to give up on their dreams, even if success seems unlikely.
“How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become,” Mark Kelly said, pointing out that both he and his brother struggled to pay attention in class when they attended Pleasantdale. Mark Kelly even had a difficult time upon entering the Navy, humorously recalling how his instructor told him “You’re not very good at this” after he completed his first aircraft carrier landing.
“I’m a prime example of somebody who was able to overcome a serious lack of aptitude with practice, persistence and just not giving up,” Mark Kelly continued. “You could start out as a kid here from West Orange, New Jersey, and not be the best pilot — at least not starting out to be the best pilot — and wind up commanding a rocket ship into space.”
Scott and Mark Kelly certainly have accomplished a lot since graduating from West Orange’s Mountain High School in 1982. Scott Kelly recently returned from space after spending 340 consecutive days on the International Space Station, setting the American records for the longest time an astronaut has lived in space, and for the most days — a total of 520 — in space. He also logged more than 8,000 flight hours in 40 different aircraft as a retired astronaut, Navy veteran and test pilot.
Meanwhile, Mark Kelly is one of only two astronauts to visit the ISS on four different occasions. He also commanded the Space Shuttle Endeavor on its final flight in 2011, and logged 6,000 flight hours in 50 different aircraft as an astronaut, Navy combat veteran and test pilot. Since retiring in 2011, he and wife Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — who was nearly killed in a 2011 assassination attempt — have advocated for gun legislation through their organization Americans for Responsible Solutions.
The Kelly brothers even put their genetic bond to use for NASA, participating in an unprecedented study on the effects of extended space travel by undergoing tests while Scott Kelly was on the ISS and Mark Kelly was on Earth. The NASA scientists and university researchers who conducted the study hope to use the data collected to someday send astronauts to Mars.
But through it all, the Kellys never forgot where they came from, frequently visiting their alma mater over the years. Scott Kelly even talked to Pleasantdale students through a video link while aboard the ISS during his historic mission in January.
It is this dedication that makes the brothers deserving of having the school named after them, according to Principal Joanne Pollara. Speaking with the West Orange Chronicle after the ceremony, Pollara said the Kellys’ willingness to give back to their community after all their success warrants recognition. And having the brothers’ name on the building will also serve as a legacy to which students can aspire, Pollara said.
“They have been, for our community and our country and our school, wonderful role models for our children,” Pollara said. “They’re a fine example of what hard work and perseverance can do when you have a dream.”
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky agreed that the Kelly brothers’ story is inspirational to West Orange’s students, showing them the importance of finding their passions and being relentless in pursuing their goals. Rutzky said their accomplishments, in addition to the fact that they genuinely care about the town’s students, are the reasons why renaming the school after them was such a “no-brainer.”
In addition, the superintendent said Scott and Mark Kelly indicate the quality of education that West Orange schools provide.
“It certainly sends a clear message that decades of educators have done a phenomenal job in the district,” Rutzky told the Chronicle following the ceremony. “The Kelly brothers are two examples of many individuals who have come out of the school district well prepared for college or the workforce and beyond.”
Pollara and Rutzky both said that the ceremony was an exciting moment that no one who attended will ever forget, which is definitely true for the Kellys’ father, Richard Kelly, a retired captain with the West Orange Police Department. Richard Kelly, whose late wife Patricia was the first woman to serve on the town’s police force, said it was “wonderful” seeing his boys honored. Though he said that his greatest moments were whenever they landed on Earth safely after braving the dangers of space — “They’re always in trouble up there,” Richard Kelly said — the school renaming was certainly special.
“This is fantastic,” Richard Kelly told the Chronicle.
But having their own school named after them was not the only honor bestowed upon the Kelly brothers during Kelly Family Day. In a separate ceremony on the steps of Town Hall, they became the first recipients of the Mayoral Medal in front of a large crowd. They were also given a few West Orange-themed gifts including Mountain High School Rams hats and the latest book from township historian Joseph Fagan, whose work Scott Kelly read aboard the ISS.
The Kellys, in turn, expressed gratitude for being back in their hometown and excitement about some of the improvements made in their absence, with Mark Kelly joking that the two used to have to break into the reservoir though it is now open to the public. Above all they stressed that West Orange — particularly its public school system — set them on a path “out to space and back.”
And even though Scott and Mark Kelly have received numerous accolades from the Navy and NASA throughout their careers, they said being recognized by the township was something else entirely.
“I’ve got to admit, I don’t think Scott and I (have been) acknowledged like we have been today,” Mark Kelly said. “It’s certainly unexpected and very appreciated.”
To Mayor Robert Parisi, it was important for West Orange to honor the Kelly brothers as native sons who went on to accomplish great things. In fact, Parisi said their achievements were so extraordinary that they deserved to be recognized in a special way, which is why the Mayoral Medal was created.
Paying tribute to the Kellys was not simply a nice gesture, though. As Parisi explained, cementing the brothers’ local legacy through the medal and their newly renamed school also sends a message to West Orange youth about the heights they can achieve.
“Hopefully this generation and future generations will look to the Kelly School and know of their accomplishments, know of the hard work and perseverance to achieve their dreams, and make a statement in this world as they did,” Parisi told the Chronicle prior to the ceremony. “Long after the Kellys are gone, they’ll understand the importance of what they represent to this community.”
Council President Victor Cirilo agreed that the Kellys send a powerful message that “anyone can fly,” especially if one has a strong public school education like the brothers received in West Orange. To recognize them in such a grand fashion was the right thing to do, Cirilo said, since the magnitude of their achievement warranted a major homecoming celebration.
The community indeed knew the significance of Scott and Mark Kelly’s visit to West Orange, judging from the crowds that clustered around them following both ceremonies hoping to get a picture or an autograph. The excitement in the air was palpable just in hearing them speak, with even the youngest of school children hanging on their every word in silent, rapt attention. It was more than simply being in the presence of celebrity — it was watching two hometown boys make good.
At least, that was the significance for Kristin Connolly and Christian Beltran. The two residents told the Chronicle that they have been following the Kellys’ careers for quite some time, so to see them in person was exciting. They also pointed out that it was nice to see the brothers remember where they came from, returning to the community when they easily could have stayed away.
Residents Holly Feijo and Sharen Rawes were also happy to see the Kelly brothers recognized for their “extraordinary” accomplishments. To them, the brothers represent the fact that anything can happen if people reach for the stars.
“People in small towns do big things too,” Feijo told the Chronicle while waiting for the medal ceremony to begin.
For resident Sylvia Rowan, the chance to see Scott and Mark Kelly was particularly meaningful. Originally from Poland, Rowan said she never thought that she would ever get to hear from two people who have been to outer space and back. Even in the United States it is surely a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Rowan said, which is why she took her daughter out of school to attend the medal ceremony.
Rowan said she is proud of the brothers for achieving their dreams and proud of West Orange for producing such heroes. Her fellow community members should also be appreciative, she said, for being able to live in a township where people can grow up to become astronauts as Scott and Mark Kelly did.
“This doesn’t just happen,” Rowan told the Chronicle. “Sometimes people don’t realize what they have here. They should be proud of their town. It’s a great town.”
Photos by Sean Quinn