Slice of Life

Kathe Tanner: A Juhl of a Ride

ktanner@thetribunenews.comAugust 9, 2012 

Recent weeks have been a time of looking beyond our usual parameters, out to our country and the world, and being thrilled or horrified by a lot of what’s going on out there. We’ve been inspired and uplifted by NASA’s Curiosity rover sticking its landing on Mars, by Olympians’ accomplishments and smiley personalities — hello, Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas. Even Michael Phelps cracked a grin after accepting his 22nd medal.

Alternatively, we’ve been shocked to our core by yet another mass shooting rampage against innocent people, with the Wisconsin massacre being labeled a possible hate crime.

And we’ve grieved the loss of friends and icons alike. Sometimes, the latter are also the former. In a strangely twice-removed way, astronaut Sally Ride was one of those.

“The impact of Sally Ride and women like her cannot be overestimated,” said Amy Mainzer, an astrophysicist who is a principal scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. Mainzer told Los Angeles Times reporter Carolyn Kellogg that Ride “proved that it was possible to work in space physics and as a space scientist and be female at the same time. What she did was prove that you could make it all the way to the top and accomplish amazing things in these fields — and still have a pair of ovaries.”

The trailblazing Ride, at 32 years of age, was the first woman in space. She died July 23 at age 61 of pancreatic cancer.

Complications of the same disease killed a friend of hers, a notable with North Coast ties. Jerry Juhl was a former Cambria resident who traveled the world stage as the Emmy-award-winning head writer for The Muppets and wrote for Jim Henson for 37 years, including on Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. He died Sept. 26, 2005.

Juhl’s wife Susan, also a Henson writer, recently commemorated their friend Sally Ride at, recalling how she and Jerry brought Ride to Cambria.

In 1981, “the Muppets were asked to write wake-up calls for astronauts on board the first Columbia shuttle flights.” Jerry Juhl asked for details about the astronauts, such as their “favorite songs, their odd tics, their passions. ...

“Sally Ride was in charge of these calls, so she contacted Jerry. She was very pleased with Jerry’s enthusiasm, and volunteered to fly to our place, to discuss things in person. (It wasn’t just for fun: astronauts had to pilot a jet once a month.)

“Next thing we knew, THREE astronauts flew three jets to Vandenberg, where they rented a car and drove to Cambria.

“I fixed dinner for them, then the talk began. After Jerry got the info he needed, he showed them his flight simulator on his Apple. The three space people asked to try it out. (They crashed the planes —NOT on purpose!)

“The wake-ups went beautifully.

“The original three plus the guys who had been awakened wanted to thank us, so they flew out again. We had a great time, and they signed a large photo of the shuttle ascending.

“They wrote, ‘To Jerry and Susan (‘writers to the Stars’)—Many thanks! And may the Swinetrek and the Columbia cross paths again.’ It’s signed by Steve Negel, Terry J. Hart, Jim Bucki, John Young, Richard Truly, Joe Engle, Ken Mattingly, Hank Hartsfield, Rich Hauck, Dan Brandenstein, and Sally K. Ride (John Young had been the ninth person to walk on the Moon in 1972.)

“Sally kept in touch, so when she was picked to fly aboard the Challenger in 1983, she invited us to the launch. We went, thinking we’d probably be a long way away from the main staging area, since we weren’t family. We were very surprised to find ourselves in the VIP stand.

“It was a glorious moment when that beautiful shuttle took off. All the senses were involved (mainly sight and sound, but even smell and taste), and I was so moved I was crying. I looked at Jerry. He was crying, too.

“We kept up our friendship with Sally, and invited her to Toronto where we were producing Fraggle Rock. She was fascinated by the Doozers, since the mechanisms used to make them move were very similar to the arm on the Shuttle.”

Susan concluded that her friend Sally Ride “was a great teacher, writer, scientist and human being.”

RIP Sally Ride.

Note: By the way, fans posting on the Tough Pigs message board have decided that Sept. 26 should be celebrated as Jerry Juhl Day — a day to do silly things to celebrate Juhl’s life and whimsy.

Also, thanks go to former Cambrian editor Claudia Snow Elliott for alerting me to this.

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