l to r: Mike Collins (Apollo 11), Myrtle "Jay" Jenzano, and John Young (Apollo 16) in the Jenzano living room, ca. 1964. Image courtesy of Carol Jenzano, copyright 2018.

Astronauts in her Home

In 1949, when Myrtle Jenzano found out she would be living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she was willing to give it a try. Her husband, Tony, reassured her that they could leave after a few years if she hated it…an eventuality that never came.

Like Tony, Myrtle was born and raised in Philadelphia, a city that (like most cities) has a very small number of cows. From her new home in North Carolina, however, Myrtle could look out a window to see cows chewing cud in a nearby field. The noise of crickets at night, however, was the most unexpected and alien thing about her new town.

Most townsfolk had a hard time spelling Jenzano, so eventually Myrtle suggested everyone simply call her “Mrs. J,” and that became “Jay” over time.

Over the years, Tony and Myrtle-now-Jay adopted southern traditions – raising kids to say “sir” and “ma’am,” addressing strangers as neighbors and neighbors as dear friends.

Eleven years later, when Tony (who was the director of Morehead Planetarium) started inviting astronauts over for dinner, Jay was entertaining these national heroes in her home like a quintessential southerner. She served tea and lemonade, sometimes something a bit stronger, home-cooked meals, and good-natured, joyous fun times.

Jay was the life of any party and everyone loved the Jenzanos especially because of Jay. She treated her guests as dear friends. Tony was no slacker at exuding kindness and charm, but while everyone remembered his smile, no one could ever forget Jay’s hearty laugh.

The Jenzanos enriched Chapel Hill as they intertwined their kindness, warmth, hard work, and brilliance with the town. Almost seventy years after their arrival, many of their descendants still live here and their good deeds persist mostly in the form of the legacy at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

But what about Jay’s stories? And the stories of astronaut dinners? What about Christmas card exchanges, social visits, and friendships with astronauts that spanned decades?

Don’t let these hidden stories fade. Help us bring Jay’s and Tony’s memories where they belong – back into the light and onto the Big Screen.

Join us in our efforts to bring these stories to to life in our documentary! https://vimeo.com/264234688

NASA press conference with New Nine astronauts and NASA officials in 1963. Photo courtesy of UNC Photographic Laboratories and Morehead Planetarium and Science Center Archives.

Speaking Engagements

Last month, I moderated a panel with Jim Horn, a technical visionary who worked at Morehead Planetarium for thirty years, and Don Hall, first Assistant Director of Morehead Planetarium and man who trained more than fifty astronauts at our facility.

I have been invited recently to speak to two astronomy groups in North Carolina about Tony Jenzano impact as thirty-year director at Morehead Planetarium. The first is the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) in February. The second is the Cape Fear Astronomical Society with the date likely to be in April or May. I am honored by these invitations.

The picture above clearly is not me speaking – it’s Tony Jenzano addressing the press while standing alongside the New Nine and NASA officials during a press conference at Morehead Planetarium in 1963. Photo courtesy of UNC North Carolina Digital Collection.

Don Hall, Astronaut Trainer

Don Hall (left), former Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer 1962 - 1968 with Michael G. Neece (right)
Don Hall (left), former Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer 1962 – 1968 with Michael G. Neece (right)

I spent the day with Don Hall, a Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer from 1962 – 1968. Joining me for one interview was Richard McColman, a man who knows as much about early space missions as anyone I’ve ever met. We got to satisfy a lot of our mutual curiosity regarding training, astronaut personalities, and the Tony Jenzano era at Morehead.

Fulldome Theater Manager, Richard McColman (left) sits with former assistant director Don Hall (right) examining a diagram of the Zeiss VI.
Fulldome Theater Manager, Richard McColman (left) sits with former assistant director Don Hall (right) examining a diagram of the Zeiss VI.

Tomorrow, I will host a lunch with Don Hall, Carol “CJ” Jenzano (daughter of Tony Jenzano), Todd Boyette (current Morehead Planetarium & Science Center director), and Jim Horn (technical visionary for 30+ years at Morehead). Lunch provided will be a classic southern welcome home provided by Mama Dips.

We round out the weekend with a Sunday afternoon panel discussion with Jim Horn and Don Hall regarding Tony Jenzano’s legacy and anything our audience wants to ask about. There is still a bit of space, so RSVP right away for our 3 PM session in Morehead Planetarium’s State Dining Room.

Don Hall (left), Morehead Planetarium assistant director and astronaut trainer from 1962 - 1968 with Michael G. Neece (right)

How This All Got Started

Morehead Planetarium & Science Center director Todd Boyette is my friend and has been for years. Over a cup of holiday cheer in December 2016, I told him I wanted to write books about Morehead. He agreed that too many of our stories are untold and encouraged me to chase these stories. Todd promised (and delivered) archival access, staff support, and even a budget for travel and research. With his support, I’ve been on a quest to tell the world about this gemstone embedded in the heart of North Carolina.

The core of our astronauts-visiting-Chapel-Hill story is Tony Jenzano.

He was the man who proposed to NASA that Morehead Planetarium create and deliver astronaut training from the very beginning of the astronaut program. NASA (and the astronauts) appreciated the training so much, Morehead’s contract was renewed from 1960 – 1975. All of this was going on in the sleepy southern town of Chapel Hill, NC. Nobody knew astronauts had come for training until they were already gone.

The training saved astronaut lives.

And just as cool as saving astronauts sounds, what about all those times Tony went bowling with astronauts or had them over for dinner? Or had them come sit out with him on his front porch?

Interviews with astronauts like Jim Lovell and Story Musgrave have led to exciting moments, but some of the best interviews have been with former and current employees and with Tony’s daughter.

On January 20 and 21, we’ll be interviewing Don Hall, former assistant director and educator who trained over fifty astronauts in the 1960’s. Two other special guests will be there: Jim Horn, the man who for years told me “Tony stories” and infused me with curiosity, and CJ Jenzano, Tony’s daughter who still remembers when she sat with her family and astronauts on her front porch.