2013-01-02 / Entertainment

Astronaut Tours Gettysburg With Brownsville Native

By Christine Haines

UNIONTOWN, Pa. (AP) – In 37 years as a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg, Brownsville native Deb Novotny had never had a famous person on tour with her – until this year.

She got a call in April to set up a tour for September for a family named Lovell.

“I didn't know it was going to be `the' Jim Lovell when I got the tour. Back in April, his youngest daughter called and set up the tour,” Novotny said.

Novotny said the licensed guides discussed the reservation among themselves, thinking how unlikely it was to be the former NASA astronaut. Then, the daughter, Sue Lovell, called back to discuss further details of the tour.

“She said, `My dad's 84 and we really don't want him to be driving,”' Novotny recalled.

Novotny said she looked up information on the astronaut and learned that he was 84 years old, but she didn't say anything to her fellow guides, just in case it was still just an odd coincidence.

“A week before the tour, his daughter calls again to see if she could move the tour. ‘Neil Armstrong has died and my dad wants to go to the funeral. He was an astronaut, too,’” Novotny recalls Sue Lovell saying.

Novotny gladly rescheduled.

“This was the first famous person I ever had,” Novotny said. “Five minutes before the tour I thought, ‘Am I going to be able to do this or am I going to be tongue-tied?’”

Novotny said she met the Lovells at the bed and breakfast where they were staying.

“For an astronaut, he was the most down-to-earth person I ever met. It was like we were old friends,” Novotny said.

It was Lovell's first visit to Gettysburg, but he had studied up on the history before the trip, his daughter told Novotny. As they made each stop on the three-hour tour, Lovell would listen intently, then would go off to the side, Novotny said.

“He had a camcorder and he would pan the scene and I could hear him talking, relating what I had said for the camera,” Novotny said.

At the end of the tour, Novotny had a chance to ask Lovell questions about his role in history, asking if he had ever been offered another opportunity to go to the moon because the Apollo 13 mission didn't make it. Lovell told her he had been asked that question at a news conference shortly after the near-disastrous mission.

“I looked out in the audience and I saw my wife Marilyn and she was giving me the thumbs down sign,” Novotny said Lovell recalled. “It was so stressful for the families, not knowing if they were going to come back.”

Novotny, who said she fell in love with Gettysburg when she was age 10 and knew by the time that she was 12 that she wanted to teach American history and be a Gettysburg guide, said meeting Lovell was the highlight of her experiences.

“I told Jim Lovell I didn't want any money for that tour. It was the tour of my career. I asked him, if he thought about it when he got home, could he send me an autographed picture? He said `I'll do one better, I'll send you my book.' And sure enough, two weeks later, the book arrived,” Novotny said.

Five weeks later, Novotny received a call from a man from Mississippi who wanted to be sure to see the Mississippi monument during his tour, saying he had donated to its construction in 2000.

Novotny said there is one interesting story related to the 1st Mississippi Regiment and it has to do with a young man named Jeremiah Gage, who was mortally wounded while fighting with the University Greys from the University of Mississippi.

“He wrote a letter to his mother and signed it in his own blood. In the letter he said ‘give my love to Miss Mary You- Know-Who,’ which, of course, today we don’t. The letter is supposedly at the University of Mississippi,” Novotny said.

The visitors said the husband had some connections to the University of Mississippi and he would look into it for her. That was nearly as much of an understatement as the Apollo 13 mission quote, “Houston, we've had a problem.” The tourist was novelist John Grisham, a University of Mississippi alumnus and benefactor.

“About five days later I get a call and it’s John Grisham saying, ‘They have the letter you were talking about, but it's not on display,’” Novotny said.

Novotny said Grisham offered to arrange a viewing of the letter if she ever visits Mississippi. Novotny said now that she is retired from teaching, she needs to find some time to travel before Grisham forgets who she is. In the meantime, the woman who generally reads only history books is making her way through Grisham's novels.

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