Man seeks out his mural before demolition of Arkansas school

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A Jacksonville High School alumnus is hoping to get a look at a mural he painted there in 1978, but he may never get the chance because the school is currently being demolished.

Troy Heron, who graduated from Jacksonville High School in 1979, said he has tried calling school officials and the contracted construction company to try to get a photo of it. He even visited the site on a recent Friday when he was in town from Florida for a 40-year class reunion but said he was turned away.

The mural shows a shuttle in space, coming from behind the Earth. The quest, as Heron calls it, to find the painting is personal, a search for an anchor to the only place the son of a military family said he can remotely call a hometown. The mural also forms part of what could be called the origin story of the now-retired NASA engineer, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Jacksonville North Pulaski School District spokeswoman Cheesa Williams said it's too late for the district to do anything. Access to any buildings at the old high school is up to the contracted construction company.

"Once it gets to this level of the demolition, it's out of our hands," she said.

The construction company, Baldwin and Shell, did not immediately return calls from the newspaper. Heron said he has called multiple times and has not heard back either.

All this has left him without a clear answer as to whether the mural is gone. But the area of the building where the mural was painted still stood, he said, when he visited over the weekend.

"If it's not there and it's just a memory, then that's fine," Heron said. "But if it is right there, 50 feet away, and I'm being told it's impossible to access it, it's not acceptable. There has to be a way for someone to get a photo."

Heron was a member of the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps while enrolled at Jacksonville High School. He said when he was a junior in 1978, he and a few other kids painted the mural in the JROTC area of the school, near the theater.

He didn't think much of the mural in his adult life until a historian interviewed him about five years ago about his inspiration to work for NASA.

Heron told her about watching the Apollo moon landing as little kid and visiting the Kennedy Space Center a few years later — and about the painting.

She gave him a mission: get a picture of the mural.

He called the school, years before a fence went up and construction equipment replaced school buses. Heron said a staff member who answered the phone went down to the old JROTC area and came back with good news: the painting was still there.

She took a picture and sent it to Heron. He opened it and saw a photo of a space shuttle mural — just not the right one.

A second mural of a space shuttle had been painted in a JROTC classroom in 1981, Heron learned. His mural was in an old office area. But seeing the other mural, just a few years younger, gave him hope.

"To me, that was encouraging that mine was still there," Heron said.

Someone went to look in the old JROTC office area for his mural, but Heron was told the space had been turned into a storage area, and no one could tell if the painting was still there.

The NASA historian ended up using the photo of the other mural when she published the piece including Heron, making it clear it was not the mural he had painted, and the engineer stopped searching for the artwork, at least for a little while.

Then he decided to attend the 40-year reunion for the class of 1979, which happened over the weekend. He returned to Jacksonville for the first time in decades, and the first stop he made was at his old school.

He said he was surprised to learn the school was being demolished.

He approached a guard outside the site to ask if someone could get a photo of the mural but said he was told no. They couldn't help him.

"I wasn't asking for myself to go in," Heron said, acknowledging safety risks. "I was asking if someone could escort me in or if a construction worker could go in and snap a picture."

Now Heron is unsure for how many days that part of the building will still be standing.

He said the request to get a photo of the mural may be mostly personal, but it has historical value, too.

With the old high school being torn down, Heron said it could be a way to remember the past that is literally disappearing. He said he hopes it could also inspire future students to know that someone who graduated from a high school in Jacksonville, Arkansas, could go on to work for NASA.

"It would seem to be a real shame," Heron said, "if we can't document those paintings."

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.