By CHELSEY POLLOCK
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Four years ago, retired town historian Rick Holmes sent a letter to the United States Postal Service calling for a stamp in honor of Derry’s beloved Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
Though there’s no telling just what influence his letter had, Holmes and others of his generation will see their childhood hero featured on a Forever Stamp as part of the Postal Service’s 2011 commemorative stamp program.
“When my father was growing up, his heroes were cowboys,” said Holmes, who was 15 during Shepard’s famous spaceflight in 1961. “When we were growing up our heroes were astronauts — for a whole generation. And Alan Shepard was our very own.”
Shepard’s stamp will be sold as a pair with another honoring NASA’s unmanned MESSENGER mission, which in March is expected to become the first spacecraft to enter Mercury’s orbit.
Both stamps were designed by Donato Giancola, of New York. Giancola is an awardwinning artist best known for cover illustrations for a variety of science fiction novels.
On the Shepard stamp, Giancola paired Shepard’s visage with the Project Mercury capsule Freedom 7 and a Redstone launching rocket.
The stamp’s May 4 release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961.
The space program pair is 11th in the lineup of the Postal Service’s 2011 commemorative stamp program. All of the new releases will be marked Forever Stamps, good for 1 ounce of first-class mail regardless of rate changes.
The Postal Service says that 28 billion Forever Stamps have been sold since first issued in April 2007, generating more than $12 million in revenue.
The Postal Service requires that a subject be deceased for five years before appearing on a commemorative stamp. For Shepard, who died in 1998, the May 4 release will be his first time on American postage.
But Holmes said that countries with fewer regulations have been issuing Shepard stamps for years.
“There are stamps from Togo to Dubai that have Alan Shepard’s picture on them,” he said. “I don’t think we realize how much of a hero across the world he was.”
Altogether, there are about 100 Shepard stamps from nearly 30 countries, said Holmes, and many are displayed at the Derry History Museum.
Holmes said he hopes that the new Shepard stamp will help rekindle the affection Derry had for Shepard 50 years ago.
“It used to be all about Alan Shepard. People remember where they were for his space launch like they remember the Kennedy assassination,” said Holmes, who served as the town historian for 25 years. “When he landed, the church bells rang and everybody started clapping. All the businesses closed and everybody headed to Broadway.
“But back when I was running the museum, kids would come in and they might know something about Alan Shepard, but not much,” Holmes said. “People confuse him with John Glenn. A generation ago, there was no doubt.”
Derry Heritage Commission Chairman Frank Santiago said he, too, worries that Shepard’s significance has begun to fade.
“Everything is moving so fast nowadays that it seems like history is taking a back seat,” Santiago said. “It seems like Shepard’s memory is fading, but he’s one of our beloved sons and he did something that had reverberations around the world. We’re still proud of him, and I know we’ll be trying to get our hands on a copy of the stamp.”