Interview with Author Larry Scheckel
Today I welcome author Larry Scheckel. Larry is an award-winning science teacher who turned his love for science into books that teach us how things work. The recently released, I Always Wondered About That: 101 Questions and Answers About Science and Other Stuff and Ask a Science Teacher address our quirky, hypothetical, and somtimes irreverent questions that we never asked in class. In addition, he has written a memoir of growing up in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin, Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.
Larry, thank you so much for visiting today. I’ve enjoyed your books so much and know that you never stop writing. I Always Wondered About That: 101 Questions and Answers About Science and Other Stuff released just this past month. Do you have any other releases planned for 2018?
Yes, I was offered an additional two-book contract from Boston publisher Tumblehome Learning. It will be a continuation of the I Always Wondered About That series. The next book, tentatively entitled Science Made Simple, will be published in the Fall 2018. The third in the series is set to be out in Fall 2019.
Click HERE to purchase.
I love the idea that you’ve taken your vast science knowledge and made concepts accessible for those of us who are most definitely less ‘science-y’. I’m sure that skill was born out of years of teaching. Can you tell me what led to your decision to begin writing?
John Kinney, the publisher of our local twice-weekly newspaper, The Tomah Journal, urged me to write a general science column. The column has been running since 1993 and is also carried by the Monroe County Herald in Sparta, Wisconsin. The column, Ask Your Science Teacher takes questions from both kids and adults. I started writing a series of science articles for magazines targeted for science teachers. The series is closing in on a total of 900 columns. I also wrote articles for The Science Teacher and The Physics Teacher magazine.
You taught physics and aerospace science for nearly 40 years and your resume is full of some spectacular achievements. Being a high school student in the 1980s, I clearly remember the excitement over the Teacher in Space project and only recently learned that you were one of the teachers nominated from Wisconsin. I’m sure you were watching the day of the Challenger launch as we all were and experienced first the unbelievable horror and then the deep sadness when the mission went so horribly wrong. Even given the inherent danger of space travel, I think we all have a fascination with becoming an astronaut. Can you tell us what it was like to be nominated for such a unique experience and what the selection process was like?
In 1984, President Reagan put out a call for teachers to apply to be the first Teacher In Space. Over 11,000 teachers filled out the extensive application, 303 from Wisconsin. Five from Wisconsin were selected, then through interviews and tests, it was narrowed down to two. Ellen Baerman from Brookfield was one and I was the other.
About 100 of us met in the summer of 1985 in Washington, D.C. for a week-long seminar, orientation, tours, and the final selection process. We met some of the former astronauts, such as John Glenn, and Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. We were invited to the White House for a reception and a talk by President Ronald Reagan. We attended many NASA classes and met four members of the crew that would be taking the selected Teacher In Space in space with them in early 1986.
NASA selected Christa McAuliffe from Concord, New Hampshire and Barbara Morgan from Utah, as the backup and the rest of us were sent home. All 100 of the finalists were invited down to the Kennedy Spacecraft Center for a week of classes, tours, and for the launch scheduled for January 22, 1986. Due to delays in scheduling, a stuck hatch, sand storm in Senegal, equipment failures, and high winds, the launch was actually January 28, 1986. Many of us had returned to our teaching assignments and missed the launch.
The Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of all seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe. An O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff.
On a personal basis, I was relieved that I was not chosen. I think all of us were. We did meet in subsequent years for week-long sessions for NASA updates and classes, at New Orleans, Cape Kennedy, Johnson Spacecraft Center in Houston, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. It was a chance to meet lots of people, travel, and give talks.
The Shuttle program was delayed for almost three years. We watched the Shuttle tile being attached to the new replacement Shuttle, Endeavor, out in California.
Ann and I did watch the launch of Barbara Morgan in August 2007 at Cape Kennedy. Morgan was the back-up to Christa McAuliffe. All the finalists enjoyed a reunion at Cape Kennedy in January 2016, the 30th anniversary of the Challenger loss.
Your science books are great fun, but I truly enjoyed your memories of farm life as well. Did the switch to memoir writing pose any great challenges for you?
Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers is indeed a memoir book about growing up on a Crawford County southwestern Wisconsin farm outside of Seneca in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s the story of my childhood in a family of nine children, attending eight years in the one-room Oak Grove country school, the Fall basket social, the Christmas program, the end-of-the-year picnic, St. Patrick’s Church, the neighbors, the threshing ring, the long hot days of summer work, sledding in the winter, drowning out gophers on Sunday after Church, and squirrel hunting in the woods of oak, basswood, elm, walnut, and maple trees on hills and valleys.
It’s the story of growing up with my two brothers, Phillip, who was year older, and Bob, a year younger, than me. The three oldest Scheckel kids were out of the house when I was about 10 years old, and three sisters came along later. The three of us did everything together, work, school, play, and Church.
Writing memoir was quite easy for me. I’d type (keyboard) as fast as I could think or remember, paying no attention to sentence structure, spelling, or the accuracy of names and dates. Late in the evening, while listening to Willie Nelson and Chet Atkins music, I would go back and correct and edit. It took me about 10 months to write 180,000 words, which is way too many, of course, and it had to be cut down. I employed John Paine Editorial Services, out of New York to do the job. It was a good investment. Every writer must have an editor.
You give presentations quite frequently. I’ve been fortunate to hear your talk about Seneca Seasons. Now that you’re retired, do you prefer to give science talks to students or discuss your memoir. (Or are they equally appealing.)
Both are challenging and appealing, but in different ways. My wife, Ann and I, have given book talks concerning Seneca Seasons to about 50 groups around Wisconsin and Minnesota. Many of these are senior citizens groups, retired educators, libraries, and retirement homes. We’ve presented at four Sons of Norway Conferences this past year.
As an example, we motored down to The Behring Senior Center in Monroe, Wisconsin on November 21, 2017. There were 51 attending our 50-minute PowerPoint talk. Over half had attended a one-room country school, and four were former teachers in the one-room schools.
There followed another 40 minutes sharing reminiscences about farm and school life in the 1940s and 1950s. If one grew up in that time frame in a rural setting in Wisconsin, the experiences were amazingly similar.
The science programs we do for schools are the hands-on, demonstrations, gee whiz, fast moving sessions that are high interest to kids of all grades. We try to get many kids involved as volunteers. We do about 30 of those each year, elementary, middle school, and high school.
As an example, we did a two-day set of four science programs in the Platteville, Wisconsin school district on November 30-31, 2017. Early on Thursday morning we had K and 4K kids for 40 minutes. These tykes are about 4 and 5 years old. We concentrated on sound, waves, and flying things.
The next afternoon we had grades 3 and 4 at another school building. Older kids allow us to do a completely different program. The science of magic, laws of motion, and the science of rotation was the order of the day.
We’ve done science programs for groups as small as 10 and as large as 600. The students are very appreciative. They are having fun and learning science at the same time.
So far you have focused on writing nonfiction. Do you think you might ever branch out into fiction? (I think you’d be an amazing science fiction author and you definitely could write for the teen market after having a front-row-seat to high school behavior for a few decades.)
I’ve not considered writing fiction at this time and science fiction is not my cup of tea. One does build up a trove of stories and experiences in 38 years of teaching. I do wish I had written down some of those stories, sayings, incidences and events, as I was teaching, keeping a log, journal, or diary. I wouldn’t have to make any of it up.
I could write about the Driver’s Education teacher that rolled the car over while drunk, the students who turned loose a very frightened young steer on the second floor of Tomah High School (Senior Prank), and the dead skunk left in a locker on a Friday, but was not discovered until Monday morning.
I could write about one of my students that was the first female from Western Wisconsin accepted, and graduated, from MIT. Or the family that owns and operates the local Culver’s restaurant with five sons; two in the Marine Corps, one a doctor, one a priest, and one in engineering. Or another student who enlisted in the National Guard right out of high school. Tammy Maas rose through the ranks and was promoted to General in 2016. She is now the commander of the Wyoming National Guard.
Do you have other projects in the works that you’d like share with us?
I continue to write articles for Farm Collector magazine, Small Farmer’s Journal, The Country Schools Association of America newsletter, Good Old Days magazine. Writing a series for The County Today, an agriculture newspaper out of Eau Claire, and also a series for The Plymouth Review Current. I am writing a narrative of a murder that occurred in Crawford County in the 1920s.
Who is your favorite author, and what do you like most about their work?
I’ve read all the books written by Michael Perry. He is a keen observer of the human condition. His prose is descriptive and detailed. He’s a real wordsmith.
Jerry Apps is a prolific Wisconsin historian and writer. I can identify with his environment and times growing up on a farm and attending a one-room school.
What book are you reading now?
Bullet Holes and Ivory Soap by Wallace Fromm
(To purchase: paperback)
Killing England by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Is there anything I’ve missed asking that you’d like readers to know about you and your books?
Retirement (2010) has been very good to me and my wife, Ann. We’ve had time to travel extensively in Europe, New Zealand, and Canada. We returned in October, 2017 from a 10-day trip to Israel. We are proud of our two grandchildren attending Madison West High School.
We enjoy bicycling, flying radio controlled planes, playing guitar, and trying to keep healthy and fit.
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview! You can learn more about Larry and his work at:
1113 Parkview Dr.
Tomah, Wi 54660