The Lousmas Say Good-bye
After 33 years, leaving for Texas
by Jan Schlain
The couple both graduated from Ann Arbor High in 1954--Jack was football captain, and Gratia Smeltzer was homecoming queen. They married two years later, when Jack was an engineering undergrad at the U-M. His mother "thought I was too young to get married, and I should finish school first," Jack recalled while waiting in line at Blimpy Burger last summer. "I was walking out one night, going somewhere, and Dad called me back. He said, 'Do you think you're old enough to support a wife?' I said, 'Yes, I think so.' He said, 'OK.'"
The Lousmas left Ann Arbor for the first time in 1959, when Jack enrolled in the Marine Corps' officer candidate school in Quantico, Virginia. As a Marine aviator, he flew from bases across the United States and in Japan and earned the equivalent of a doctorate in engineering before applying to NASA in 1965. He flew in space twice, the last, in 1982, as pilot of the space shuttle Columbia.
During a post-flight parade, someone left a big bouquet of flowers on the Lousmas' doorstep. The card read, "Run for the U.S. Senate."
"There's nothing Jack likes more than a new horizon," Gratia says. Passing up a job offer at Boeing, he accepted the invitation from Michigan GOP leaders to run against Democrat Carl Levin. He lost, 53 to 47 percent--and got over it, he says, in "three nanoseconds."
"Jack was used to putting his life on the line in space, serving his country," Gratia explains. "Politics is not life and death."
In retrospect, Jack says, being a U.S. senator wouldn't have been a good fit. "I'm not a committee person," he says. "I like to make things happen and get things done."
They settled in Scio Township with their youngest son, Joey, and Gratia's mother, Theresa Bowling, who lived with them in her last years. Jack started his own aerospace consulting firm, worked part-time at the ERIM lab, and, Gratia says, "hit
every school in the area" to talk about his time in space. As the couple prepared to move in September, he was still volunteering on the Yankee Air Museum's campaign to save part of the old Willow Run bomber plant.
Two of the couple's children, and eight of their sixteen grandchildren, live in Texas. And "the winters are beautiful there," Gratia says--an added attraction now that they're both seventy-seven. She says Jack will likely continue his speaking engagements there, and she looks forward to seeing more of old NASA friends like Gene and Jan Cernan.
But while Jack is enjoying overseeing construction of their new home in the hill country outside San Antonio, far enough away from the nearest town to stargaze, Gratia is finding it very hard to leave Ann Arbor.
"Some people think Houston is home for us," she says. "But this is home, and it always will be."
[Originally published in October, 2013.]