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'She's a hero of the whole world'

By Jeet Thayil in New York
February 06, 2003 09:47 IST
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"Call me KC," Kalpana Chawla told Doug Maples six weeks ago. "Everybody does."

Maples, who has trouble with names, could not get hers right. First he said "Kaplaana," then "Kalpaana."

"I think it's the Texas drawl," Maples said. "Though I don't feel too bad. Even President Bush mispronounced it."

Did it bother Kalpana Chawla that most Texans could not pronounce her name?

"She laughed it off," said Maples. "She took it all in good spirit."

"She knew we loved her."

Chawla graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984.

On February 5, UTA held a memorial service in her memory. Some 300 students attended, many of them Indians,  Dean Bill Carroll said. Her former instructors spoke about Chawla's ambition and about how much she loved the university.

At the memorial UTA announced The Kalpana Chawla Scholarship Fund for engineering students majoring in aerospace. The scholarship is aimed at the type of student driven by the same dream that drove Chawla.

"She would have liked it," said Roger Tuttle, engineering instructor at UTA.

Maples, still in shock from the tragedy of the Columbia disaster, also attended the memorial. He and others at the university saw Chawla as one of their own.

"We are grieving for her," he said. "It's heartbreaking."

It was an added shock for them that the shuttle broke up above the north central part of Texas, where UTA is located and where Chawla graduated.

"I was out in my backyard watching," said Maples. "I could tell something was wrong, it looked like it was breaking up. I was thinking, no, this can't be happening again."

"It is a loss for the whole world."

Maples has been at UTA for three years. He is a student there, majoring in communications. He has a weekly morning show on UTA radio in which he interviews university alums and staff members. He plays their favorite music and converses with them in an informal, friendly fashion.

He called Chawla to ask if she would appear on his weekly morning radio show. She agreed immediately.

"She was so excited when I called," said Maples. "This was a big interview for me but she put me at ease."

"I only knew her for a short time but she left a lifetime mark on me. I feel I owe her."

"She's not only an American hero, but a hero of the whole world. She's done things the rest of us can only dream of," he said.


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Jeet Thayil in New York