Lancaster's future, like its past, is in the stars

LANCASTER -- Nobody in Lancaster wants to be known as the "Little Town That Probably Can't Anymore."

To show that doesn't have to be the case, all anybody has to do is look up into the night sky.

See the moon. Only 12 people ever walked on that moon. One of them was from Lancaster. His name is Charlie Duke.

He grew up in a house on Market Street, his family just like any other, where dollars were so dear that his parents took in boarders to make a few bucks.

Forbes magazine recently ranked Lancaster as the most vulnerable town of its size in America, based on its high unemployment and high poverty and a general lack of higher education among its people.

The picture is somewhat bleak, cold facts show. The Springs textile mills that employed so many in the town for so long are gone: The only thing Springs makes around here any more, in Lancaster and Chester and Fort Mill, where mills employed tens of thousands, is money. The workers are in Brazil, or other places, because those workers come cheap.

But the successes of Charles Duke Jr., and his twin brother, Bill, and Don Rushing from the Lancaster mill hill, can remind us that the sky is the limit for anybody in Lancaster. Or anywhere else.

The late Charles Duke Sr. sold insurance from a storefront on Lancaster's Gay Street. His late wife, Willie, ran a dress shop.

"They valued education, wanted us to have more than they did," said Bill Duke, a retired doctor who practiced his whole adult life in Lancaster. The Duke parents found enough money for Bill to go to Davidson College, then medical school. Charlie qualified for the U.S. Naval Academy.

"I don't know how -- to this day -- they scraped it together," Bill Duke said about his parents.

The Dukes might have had a few more dollars than many people in Lancaster, but Rushing recalled the Dukes "sure weren't rich. Or even close to rich."

The Rushings, with six kids, were even less well off. Don Rushing used the word "poor." He talked of getting a pair of jeans for Christmas, to go with the one pair every kid already had that was so worn, the fabric was shiny and let the light through.

Rushing's father worked in the mill and so did his mother.

"Our bathroom was outside," said Don Rushing. "And we weren't the only ones."

But coming from Lancaster in those days didn't have to mean that you were "vulnerable." Or without hope. Or dreams. It meant you were like mill kids around the country and certainly in the South, whose parents wanted more for children.

Education 'driving force'

Lancaster today has the University of South Carolina-Lancaster, Rushing said, a place to which every kid can aspire.

"No question, the driving force in my family was education," Rushing said. "Parents like mine wanted their kids to have more than they had."

Of the six Rushings, five went to college and four earned graduate degrees, Rushing said. Don Rushing, a mill hill kid, or "linthead" as mill people were called back then, became a lawyer, state senator, then a circuit court judge.

Bill Duke, 73 and six minutes younger than his twin brother the astronaut, said the Scoutmaster for him and his brother was a guy named Bundy who worked on the floor of the Lancaster mill forever.

"He instilled in us at a young age, too, just like my parents, that we could do whatever we wanted in life," Bill Duke said.

When Charlie Duke became an astronaut, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment. Everybody had succeeded. In 1972, when Charlie Duke walked on the moon, a throng of locals went to Florida to Cape Canaveral. Thousands more gathered in Lancaster when he came home to give him a hero's welcome. Because Charlie Duke deserved it. Here was a local kid who had walked on the moon!

Charlie Duke now lives in Texas, yet travels the world in Christian ministry. I wasn't able to catch up with him Thursday, but his brother Bill said Charlie just got back from Croatia and is probably off to another part of the globe.

But before any of his successes and travels, Charlie Duke was just a local kid. Yet after a decent education, and parents and a community who cared for him and wanted him to succeed, next thing you know, he is cantering in the heavens.

Bill Duke and Don Rushing both said there is no doubt hard times have come to many in Lancaster. But all it takes to remember what any kid can be, in Lancaster and wherever around here, is to look south from the county courthouse onto the wall of a building across the street. On that wall is a big mural of Charlie Duke.

"Shows you what a Lancaster boy can do, doesn't it?" asked Don Rushing.

Sure does.

But even Bill Duke said that in Lancaster, some people, especially the young, don't know who Charlie Duke is. The picture doesn't mean anything to some.

Sure there are no mills to employ people anymore. It might take a drive to Charlotte or Rock Hill to find decent work. Or getting a good base of schooling, then moving away like Charlie Duke did, before he reached that moon in the sky.