3 Inspired People

Stories Garthia Elena Burnett | Photographs Kelly Tippett & Luisa Porter

GREG STEWART, COLUMBUS

Photographed by Kelly Tippett.

Photographed by Kelly Tippett.

Greg Stewart sits in a conference room at Aurora Flight Sciences, a black and hot pink model rocket in front of him. He beams as he points out its parts — the body (a cardboard tube), fins, motor, nose, parachute and fuse.

During the day, Stewart oversees the production of unmanned aircraft and helicopter fixtures used to detect enemy submarines. In his free time, he launches aircraft of his own, 3- to 6-foot-tall rockets, hundreds of feet into the air.

Stewart’s passion for model planes and rockets began at age 7, flying the models as part of a neighborhood club. Stewart met the future founder of Aurora Flight Sciences during a rocketry competition, when they were both kids.

Decades later, model rockets remain a significant part of his life.

“It all started with model rockets,” he says of his career in composite fabrication. Through binding fiber with a carbon epoxy, Aurora and other aerospace companies are able to produce aircraft that are much stronger and lighter than metal.

With Stewart’s guidance, teams at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, the Monroe County Advanced Learning Center, the city of Starkville and the towns of New Site and Reform, Ala., have entered flights in the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

There are three reasons Stewart, a frequent contender in the World Spacemodeling Championships, mentors children interested in model rockets. No. 1: “Watching kids having fun, having aha moments.” No. 2: (“The serious reason,” he calls it.)  “The U.S. is falling behind in science and math and technology education. … War is a terrible thing. Even worse than war is being second place in a war. And I never want that to be us.” No. 3: “I like fire and smoke,” he smiles. “I like to fly these things, too.”

RONALD POWELL, WEST POINT

Photographed by Kelly Tippett.

Photographed by Kelly Tippett.

When 9/11 started a war on terrorism, Dr. Ron Powell’s Army National Guard unit deployed to Iraq.

Having suffered a heart attack in 1999, Powell couldn’t go. Some might have welcomed a reason to stay stateside. But Powell wanted to be there for his fellow soldiers. So in 2005, he volunteered to serve in Iraq as a medical surgeon. “I felt like if I was going to ask somebody else to go, I was going to have to go myself,” Powell says, leaning back in his chair in his office at West Point Family Medical.

At 59, carrying a 40-pound vest, 10-pound helmet and a 50-pound rucksack, he learned “War is for the young.” Powell returned from Iraq with a greater appreciation for all his “blessings.”

“I think it makes you a kinder, gentler person to serve in the military,” he says, looking away for a moment. His mind wandered to somewhere he chose not to share. “When you go overseas in a time of war, it makes you appreciate every day,” Powell adds, returning from his thoughts.

When a patient recruited him to join the National Guard, he answered the call to service. (The Guard also needed doctors.) By the time Powell retired from the military in 2006, he was the state surgeon for the Mississippi Army National Guard.

“I’ve always been very militaristic,” Powell notes. “I love my country.” He also feels a sense of duty toward his West Point family practice of 30 years.

Powell’s father flew B-17s for the Air Force. “If you asked him why he did it, he would say, ‘I had to do it,’” he says. He feels the same way.

LYDIA THOMPSON, STARKVILLE

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Loosely formed cotton bolls. Colorful Africa-inspired statues.  A wheelbarrow of sweet potatoes. Lydia Thompson’s studio at Mississippi State University is filled with diverse works in various stages of completion.

And that is one of the things she likes about ceramics: You can form it “into just about anything.”

Of late, Thompson has been using ceramics to tell the interwoven story of three distinct areas — the U.S., West Africa and Europe. The common fiber? Cotton.

“It’s almost a magical plant,” Thompson says, her illuminating eyes revealing her fascination with its versatility and its history.

Over the years, she has used cotton’s likeness in ceramic, as in her piece, “Bloodlines,” which uses ceramic tiles to represent the earth.

Ceramic cotton bolls adorn the tiles, decorated with floral pattern decals. West Africa-inspired masks are etched into the clay, representing an “imprint of identity on a common ground,” according to a 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly, which features Thompson’s work.

The history of cotton in the South also ties into her own history.

Though she was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, she has ancestral roots in the South. After Thompson moved to Starkville to take the job as head of the art department at Mississippi State, she visited the gravesite of a great-great-great-great grandfather, a former Virginia slave, who was buried in Mississippi.

Thompson felt she had come full circle. “It was always a mystery to me. I was always intrigued about Mississippi,” she said.