The same moon she saw

Apollo 13 liftoff

Apollo 13 lifts off (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve always been curious about the dark side of the moon and the lesser known parts of peoples lives. They are one in the same sometimes, these parts that aren’t always visible, these parts of lives that stay hidden by design or by accident. Such is the case with the late Elizabeth Wilson Gauldin (’50). When I learned that she was to be featured on the JMU website this week, I was curious about her and did some investigating.

Elizabeth grew up in a small town in Rockbridge County, Va. Anyone who has ever lived on a rural farm or in a small town bereft of streetlights knows that the moon looms large in places like Rockbridge Baths, her childhood home. So it is easy to speculate that young Elizabeth looked at the moon and dreamed.

She was a very smart woman: valedictorian of her high school class, who came to Madison College in 1946 to double major in biology and chemistry. Later in Elizabeth’s life, after extensive travels with her daughter Catherine, the latter wrote of her mother that she “was always the first to ask questions and the last person to leave the lecture. She never allowed her intellect to grow fallow, never met a stranger, never allowed her life to grow stale and always remained an inspiration to those who gathered around her.” One can easily imagine that this is the way Elizabeth approached her Madison classes.

Elizabeth’s life story reads like a novel of seized opportunities and critical contributions to some of the most eventful moments in America’s last century. She was a NASA scientist with roles in the Skylab and Shuttle programs. She touched history with her contribution to the safe return to earth of Apollo 13 astronauts. In a way, it seems her life was inextricably linked to the Heavens. Her daughter was born on the day that Russia launched Sputnik.

But I learned there was another side to Elizabeth Gauldin, one less dramatic perhaps, but one with equal resonance. What I discovered about Elizabeth affirmed her role in history, her extraordinary intellect, her persistence in putting to good use her understanding of science, but I also found a woman who believed that every child deserved a chance at life. “She was committed to trying to make a difference in the lives of others, in particular with young people with a background of abuse and neglect. She had a great heart for the forgotten of the world, the downtrodden, the lost, the shattered, the desperate,” Catherine wrote.

With this disposition and a personal inspiration that came from a deep faith in God, Elizabeth volunteered with the Open Door Mission, a faith-based homeless shelter in Texas, her adopted state. At Open Door, she tutored and encouraged young people to attain their GEDs. Certainly she understood that education was a good road. She also volunteered and tutored elementary-school children. She became a mentor at the Krause Children’s Center, a facility that helps children who have been emotionally or physically wounded.

But that was not all. At the Harris County Boot Camp, which is aligned with an adolescent detention center, Elizabeth mentored youth. Her goal, unquestionably, was to help them right their lives, as much as a rocket launched must find its correct trajectory. I doubt she regaled any of her charges with stories of her own successes; instead, I suspect that Elizabeth Gauldin encouraged them to aim for the moon.

“She led by example and personal commitment and not by words alone, and in doing that touched with great intensity as many lives as she came in contact with,” Catherine wrote. “She never ignored an opportunity to help someone else.”

She inspired so many, including her daughter. “Even though there’s not a minute that goes by when I do not miss her unfailing optimism and encouragement, I never hesitate to believe that her’s was a life well lived,” Catherine wrote. “She lived while she was alive and left a legacy that will continue to bless people for many years to come.”

I never had the privilege of meeting Elizabeth Gauldin, but still she inspires me. She will forever be a part of the fabric of Madison, inasmuch as the moon is part of the night sky. I, like many, will never look at the moon again — the same moon she saw — without thinking of her and her legacies both famous and unseen.

You can read Elizabeth’s Be the Change profile here:

And you can read much more about Elizabeth’s inspiring career with NASA’s space programs in “Moonstruck,” an article in Madison magazine’s precursor, Montpelier magazine.  Here’s the link:

(Many thanks to Catherine Gauldin for the use of portions from the tribute she wrote about her mother.)

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to The same moon she saw

  1. Lynda Ramsey says:

    Elizabeth Gauldin is truly a role model that I aspire to; and yet like Martha, I never had the pleasure of meeting her either.


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