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U.S. social workers captured by Taliban to speak in Pillars series

Apollo astronaut to launch annual series of inspirational speeches on April 17

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

An astronaut, an Olympic gold medal winner, imprisoned relief workers and one of the youngest top gun pilots in American history will share their experiences with Juneau residents this spring.

The Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club's annual Pillars of American Freedom speaker series starts April 17 with Capt. Eugene Cernan, commander of the final Apollo mission. He spoke in Juneau in 1992, the first year of the lecture series, according to Lorene Kappler, who helped organize this year's event.

Ace pilot Stephen Ritchie will speak April 24. Christian aid workers Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, who were imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan and released last fall, will speak May 1. Gold medal wrestler Rulon Gardner will wrap up the series May 8.

"Overall, we look for individuals that have had an extraordinary experience that has tested their courage and abilities, physically, emotionally and sometimes financially," Kappler said.

The rotary club's selection committee also looks for speakers who may have overcome a difficult situation or achieved their goals because of the freedoms American citizens have, Kappler said.

As part of Apollo 17, Cernan was the last of 12 astronauts to leave his footprints on the moon and spent a record amount of time on the lunar surface. He also walked in space on Gemini 9 and orbited the moon on Apollo 10.

Ritchie has more than 3,200 flying hours, 800 of those in combat. An F-4 pilot in Vietnam, he is the U.S. Air Force's first and only pilot ace since the Korean War and the only American pilot in history to down five MIG-21s. He was the youngest top gun pilot in U.S. history, Kappler said.

Mercer, 24, and Curry, 30, were imprisoned by the Taliban on Aug. 3 on charges of attempting to convert Muslim Afghans to Christianity. The two women went to Afghanistan with the German-based Shelter Now International, where they provided health care, aided widows and helped street children. They were liberated by Northern Alliance rebel soldiers and U.S. special forces helicopters after spending 105 days in prison.

Gardner is a three-time national champion and a Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist in the 2000 Olympic games. The youngest of nine children, he grew up on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyo., where he stayed in shape by hauling hay, milking cows and doing other farm chores.

It is the 11th year for the lecture series. Local businesses provide funding to bring the speakers to town and sponsor student tickets, Kappler said.

Tickets are available at Hearthside Books and are $25 for each event or $90 for all four. The speeches are at Centennial Hall, with lunch catered by the Hangar on the Wharf. The doors open at 11:30 a.m.



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