Leggett man spent 43 years with the space program


Frank Coiro wrote this in his preface of his personal documentation of his life: “I have always been one who figured that if I could take it apart, I could fix it. If I ran into an obstacle, I would teach myself to overcome it. In my lifetime I have taught myself welding, black and white and color photography and process, automotive repair, electronics, electrical, computer PC’s and mainframe, gun repair, leather working, wood working and ammunition reloading.”

Frank is 84 years old and “he’s not bragging, he’s telling the truth.” Frank has been to Rome several times. He keeps up with his relatives on Facebook. One of these relatives is an architect in Rome.

Frank shares this childhood story: “We made do with what we had. One day Harold Blevins, our neighbor, and I were throwing things across a pond. I hit Harold with a flashlight battery and caused a pretty good gash. My father, John Francis, sewed Harold up with a regular sewing thread and needle because there was not a doctor close by.”

Frank continues, “My Father, John Francis, was man of ‘many talents.’ Sometime before he was 16, he ran away from home. He was able to join the United States Army and became a musician in the 69th Coast Artillery band. His primary instrument was the trombone; however, he played many other instruments. In 1931 he met Dorothy Williams at Fort Benning, Ga., and married her on May 16, 1931.

“During the 1920’s, he played for the Ruben and Cherry Circus on one of his 30-day furloughs. He transferred from Fort McClellan, Alabama to Fort Crockett in Galveston, Texas. In 1939 and until 1941 he played evenings and weekends at the Buccaneer Hotel and the Balinese pier with the dance band, Iggy Hill, in Galveston.

“In 1940 we moved from Galveston to Port Bolivar into a lighthouse. There was no electricity so we used Aladdin kerosene lamps for lighting and a wood stove to cook on. Mother used a Coleman gasoline powered iron for ironing our clothes. I have a Coleman gasoline iron just like that one.

“We had no indoor plumbing and used the ‘outhouse.’ However, we did have water piped into the house from a cistern on the roof. The water was filtered by charcoal and sand. The house was 17 feet off the ground and had a concrete floor. One night as dad was sleeping, mom painted his toenails with red polish. Dad had to stand inspection at Fort Crockett the next morning. He chased her to the top of the lighthouse. There were many times of laughter in the ‘lighthouse home.’

“Our family survived hurricanes in 1939 or 1940,” relates Frank. “Once we were evacuated and we moved to Texas City and stayed with the mayor of Texas City until the hurricane was over.

“When war was declared in 1941, dad was moved to Camp Hulen near Palacios, Texas. We lived in Palacios from September 1941 through December 1941. He was then transferred to Camp Swift in Bastrop, Texas. From there in 1942 we moved to Annison, Alabama, then to San Diego at Lindberg Field. While there the family experienced an earthquake!

“Dad was shipped to Fort Ord, California and from there he went to the Aleutians to drive out the Japanese. He was at Kisha and Attu but never encountered any Japanese. (Dad said they left so fast that their food was still on the table, warm). At some point dad was assigned to the 4th Army Engineering Division. We moved 18 times in my first 12 years of my life.”
Frank suffered hardships with each move but has learned knowledge and gained lifetime experiences from each move.

Frank says, “In these generations of Williams, I seem to be the family historian. No one else seems to care about the family’s past. Mother’s brother, Jack, had his leg badly shot; bad enough that the bone was shattered. The Germans put a stainless pin through the middle of the bone and wired the fragments back together. This surgery saved his leg. In the late 1940s or early 1950s, the army took him to Coral Gables hospital and removed the pin put in by the Germans and the corrective surgery was covered in the Life Magazine.

“I had moved to Phoenix City, Alabama to work at Sears in Columbus, Ga. which was across the river. I came back to Birmingham to work at Hayes Aircraft in the publications department as a proofreader. Little did I know that this was the beginning of my career in government contract publishing. I worked in proofing, page layout and the last four years in the illustrating department. There I worked in the pencil layout of orthographic drawings and learned to do orthographic projections and illustrated parts breakdown. At Hayes I developed a reproduction process to reduce the drawing time span by 50 percent. It involved the original Xerox process.”

“I started at the Chance Vought plant in Grand Prairie in March 1961 in the publication department where I worked on page makeup on the F8U2 Crusader aircraft. We published Operation and Maintenance Handbooks. I was given charge of the library and it was at this time I realized I worked for the company who designed and built the F4U Corsair Aircraft used in WWII and the Korean War. That airplane was my favorite,” says Frank.

“I then had the chance to move to Florida on a new contract at the Kennedy Space Center. At first I was a primary illustrator and then I worked my way up to a lead illustrator. I worked in Air Force Hanger 16. The illustration-group work was on the second floor and the astronauts were on the ground floor. When I worked there, it was during the time of the last Gemini flight and the beginning of the Apollo program. I was housed there while the Manned Space Operations Building was under construction.

“While at Kennedy Spacecraft Center (KSC), I met and worked for Kurt Debus, the director of KSC at the time and prepared the largest organizational chart I had ever produced, (12 feet tall by 30 feet wide). I met most all of the original seven astronauts and the next group of astronauts through 1970. I designed, built and wired the electrical circuit for the orbital display of the Moon shot. I fabricated the light box panels for the 36x40, 11x17, 8x10 transparencies that were instrumental in the fabrication of the Lunar Orbit Display at the Visitor Information Center at KSC. Upon the redesign and rework of the display some 10 years later, I was able to obtain the switching motor from the orbit display,” relates Frank.

Frank states that “Through the work I did there I was able to meet the astronauts, at work and at splash down parties. At one of the parties, Sue, my wife, and I attended we met Jimmy Stewart, the actor, and Bill Dana, the comedian. We got souvenir programs signed by the actors and astronauts.”

“At the completion of the structural part of the Vertical Assembly Building the top beam was put on display for all employees to sign, my name is on that beam toward the end of the Apollo program. In the late 60s, NASA wanted artist concepts depicting the newest shuttle configurations. They wanted color artist concepts. It was then I sold them on the use of color photographs and airbrush techniques in a new configuration. They looked realistic,” Frank continues.

In April 1971, because of contract loss, Frank was transferred to Johnson Space Center. As Frank put it, “I served my time just doing charts and graphs until I was given the chance in 1974 to become the drafting department supervisor. My supervisor Mike Cox, hired a young man, Roland Powell. Roland had been given an assignment to make training slides for the astronaut training center. Roland designed a paper model of a shuttle and made it fly! We took it to the Tech Monitor and presented it to NASA.

NASA had him finish it and make a handout that was given away to visitors. Roland was also given the task of developing a painting called, ‘One Man’s Lifetime.’ This painting is one of the most widely distributed photos to date. It even hangs in the League City, Texas post-office.”

Franks writes, “When I was put in charge of these types of productions, they were being done in pencil and then inked onto Mylar. Each drawing was 10.5 feet long by 34 inches high and took an average of approximately 250 man-hours to produce. Within six weeks I had reduced the process time to 150 hours and by six months reduced it to 85 hours.

“Then comes the moment of truth. NASA wanted to computerize drafting. At 45 years old I was called in and told that I would become the systems manager when they get the system. It was one year later when the selection was made and it was awarded. Intergraph was the winner. Upon receipt of the Interactive Graphics Design System, six of my draftspersons and I went to Huntsville, Alabama for one week to learn to draft. I was given the opportunity to show off the systems capabilities to Astronaut Gordon Fullerton. I became a participating member of the Graphics User Group. Later I met Gene Cernan, a NASA Astronaut. Cernan had retired from NASA and was working for a commercial firm. He was there to evaluate the Intergraph System.

“Since moving back to Texas I met a woman, who worked for Kentron at Johnson Space Center during the late 70’s. Her name was Georgia Callahan. One weekend I took her and her husband to see the lighthouse, where I had lived during 1939 and 1940, and Fort Travis. We went into Fort Travis.

Sometime after World War II, the fort and the lighthouse were sold to the public. The fort was turned into a Civil Defense shelter, primarily during hurricanes. It had been in disrepair. While showing Georgia the fort, I commented how it was a shame that history was being wasted and that it should be made into a state park. She said that she had a relative who worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife. She left Kentron and moved away. A couple of years later she wrote me to tell me to check out the New Fort Travis State Park on Port Bolivar,” Frank remembers.

“After 20 years with LTV (Ling Cemco Vought) in 1981, I retired from government contracts and tried the commercial world. I was offered a position with an architectural srafting support firm (Automated Graphics Systems). I was hired as the educational manager. I developed a training program to educate employers and employees in the use, communication and productivity. While working at Automated Graphic Systems (AGS), I was instrumental in signing up the University of Houston Engineering Department Continuing Education to teach classes for them and I taught classes at AGS.”

Frank’s life went on but he continued to learn new things. In 1978 he began to “build” an addition onto a trailer in League City. He ran into a dilemma with the city codes, etc. He went to the building inspector for League City. He told Frank, “If you can draw the plans, he would approve Frank’s doing the work!”

“I bought a government written and published book on frame construction and used it as my guide. After this I built the garage. In 1985 I added onto my house when grandma came to live with us. Sue’s father had his own general construction company in 1932 when I married Sue. Her father wanted to teach me the construction and company business but Gedie (grandma) said I wasn’t strong enough to do the work. Well, when I began to build the house, I guess I was about a third of the way done and she was sitting there watching me. She said, ‘Oliver (granddaddy) would be proud of the job you were doing. She admitted she had been wrong to prevent granddaddy from training me.’”

Frank and Sue retired to the Polk County community of Leggett in 1996 and bought another 7.33 acres, designed and built a house on it, finishing it in 2001. Sue got to enjoy it for two years. Sue died on April 12, 2003. She is now buried in their own cemetery on their own property.

Added Frank, “At Sue’s funeral (graveside service) the children all read passages from the Bible, after Father Post, our priest from Queen of Angels from Dickinson, Texas. After the priest had finished his part of the service, Emily (granddaughter) and I were standing to the side of the tent at granny’s funeral. About the time the priest had finished his part and the children began their parts, I looked through the clearing in the trees past the mound of dirt. Sitting in the clearing was one red male cardinal. I moved Emily in front of me and pointed to the bird so she could see it. It crossed my mind that a bird came to see granny off (being the bird lover and observer she was). Even when Oliver, (our son) turned on the CD player for Becca’s (granddaughter) song, Ava Maria, the bird stayed in the clearing. When the service was done, I looked in the clearing and the cardinal was gone. It truly was like he had come to see granny off, to say goodbye.”

As I finished this interview, and then I began to write, I almost stopped writing! I said to myself, I am really going to mess up on this one! Again I was totally out of any experiences I had ever had in my educated life of experiences. I had never heard such words and could not have imagined having this kind of experience. The world is made up of all kind of people. As Frank’s son asked him….. “Why did you want to move to the woods?” Frank tells me that their family used to sing this song, “Over the rivers and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go!” He answered his son, Oliver, with the perfect answer. And then he explained, “You have to go over the rivers and through the woods to get to your grandmother’s house!” Believe me, Frank came to the woods and he found peace and the best joy…..Peace and quiet and good neighbors!

Note: Frank Coiro suggested that we mention that “anyone who worked at NASA please call the Beverly Miller at 936-327-3537 and leave your name and phone number. Frank would like to arrange a meet and greet for all those interested.

COL--BM---grandsonHELPING HAND — Eugene “Gene” Kranz (left), NASA flight director for the Gemini and Apollo space missions, worked with Frank Coiro (center) to help Coiro’s grandson, Steven (right), receive his Eagle Scout award.

COL--BM---NASA-employees2FORMER NASA EMPLOYEES — Byron Hines (left), a Polk County resident and former employee of NASA, meets Frank Coiro (right) for the first time and exchange stories about their experiences at NASA. Coiro lives in Leggett and was surprised to learn that Hines lives only a few miles from him.

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