On a hot Monday morning last July--July 8, to be exact--Concord (N.H.) Monitor columnist Robert Hohler walked into his office and learned that a local schoolteacher had been selected as one of 10 finalists for the "ordinary citizen" slot on the crew of the space shuttle Challenger.
"How'd you like to go to Houston?" his editor, Mike Pride, asked him.
Hohler headed to Houston, and for the next seven months was so close to Sharon Christa McAuliffe that he began referring to her as "my other wife."
"I was with her that first week of training," Hohler said from his home in Concord, "and from then on I covered her pretty much exclusively. No one else was really interested."
But for New Hampshire's capital city it was the biggest thing to happen since subway gunman Bernhard Goetz turned himself in to law enforcement authorities there the previous January.
"This was something different, something special, a hometown girl doing something extraordinary," Hohler said.
Hohler's dogged pursuit of McAuliffe, his 60 or 70 columns and feature stories on the hometown "teachnernaut" made the 34-year-old reporter a minor persona as well. The day before the shuttle was launched, for example, the Washington Post ran an article on Hohler as McAuliffe's journalistic shadow.
Hohler was at the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, photographing McAuliffe's parents with one eye and watching the liftoff with the other when, 73 seconds after takeoff, the Challenger exploded, killing McAuliffe and her six fellow crew members.
His grief, horror and pain at the loss of what had by then become an important friend were captured in a column Hohler wrote that was picked up by the Associated Press and that ran in the New York Daily News two days later.
Riding to work on the subway that day, Random House associate publisher and senior editor Peter Osnos read that column and immediately contacted Hohler about writing a book. Hohler's "I Touch the Future . . . The Story of Christa McAuliffe" will be published by Random House next February.
But the book is not being written without some reservations on Hohler's part. "I really had sort of a crisis of conscience," Hohler said. "This had become a friend of mine. We grew up in Boston at the same time, we were the same age, we could talk about Vietnam. I was really worried about capitalizing on the death of a friend."
Tribute to Christa
But on reflection, Hohler began to see the book project as "my tribute to Christa, memorial." It is "a chance to say all the things I never got a chance to say," Hohler said. "The story ended too soon. I wanted a chance to do it right, not a quickie book."
(A book on the shuttle disaster, "Challengers: The Inspiring Life of the Seven Brave Astronauts of Shuttle Mission 51-L," was published by Pocket Books on Feb. 28.)
While Hohler admits that the media attention on McAuliffe has been monumental, and that early on in his own McAuliffe coverage "I started to run out of questions to ask her," he insisted there remain stories to be told about her. The book will chronicle her childhood in a poor family in Boston, her education and career, the excitement of the NASA training and her home and family life.
Hohler said he will share a portion of his five-figure advance, as well as a part of the proceeds, with the McAuliffe family.
In Concord, Hohler said, "people still haven't gotten over this." Community residents continue to mourn the popular teacher and civic activist. McAuliffe's widower, Steve, and their two children, have remained in seclusion, offering no public comment on the tragedy. And Concord High School, where McAuliffe taught social studies, "is really pretty much in tough shape," he said. "The teachers and the kids really miss her."
Hohler, too, said he misses McAuliffe. "Well, yeah. I certainly haven't gotten over it. I still have dreams about it every night." In one recurring dream, he said, "the crew is rowing back to shore in an inflatable raft."
So for Hohler the book is part tribute to McAuliffe, part catharsis for Hohler. "I'm lucky," he said, "because I have a way of working out the grief."
Hohler admits he's a little nervous, taking on his first book. "But I learned a lesson from Christa," Hohler said. "I learned that you do have to reach--and this sounds corny--you have to reach for the stars. You have to test the limits of your own potential."