Rocket Boys hero dies at 91

Bill Archer/Bluefield Daily TelegraphArt imitates life as Bill Bolt, right, appears with Randy Stripling, the actor who portrayed “Bill Bolden” in the movie “October Sky,” during the 2010 October Sky Festival at Coalwood.

COALWOOD — William O. “Bill” Bolt, one of the real life, behind-the-scenes heroes of the story that Homer Hickam made famous in his book “Rocket Boys: A Memoir,” passed away Saturday at his residence in Coalwood. He was 91.

Bolt was born in Coalwood, graduated from Big Creek High School in 1941 and served in World War II as a combat veteran in the U.S. Navy. Bolt returned to Coalwood and worked 43 years with Olga Coal Co., until he retired.

“Bill Bolt is the last of the great men who lived in Coalwood during the Rocket Boys era,” Homer Hickam wrote in response to an email seeking comment. “He was the foreman of the machinists who actually built our rockets although in the first memoir, I called him Leon Ferro. After he asked me why (I didn’t have a good reason other than sometimes authors disguise their characters just because), I gave him his name back in ‘The Coalwood Way’ and I’m glad I did.”

After the book was published, Bolt was proud of Hickam and the other boys who were motivated by the Russian satellite Sputnik to form the Big Creek Missile Agency. Real-life people like Early Smith, Bolt, Red Carroll, Big Creek teacher Freida J. Riley and Principal Robert Turner helped the young men reach for the stars.

“We became pretty close over the subsequent years as he, his wife Reba, and a few other Coalwood citizens put on the October Sky Festival for thirteen years,” Hickam wrote.

The venue for the festival changed to Beckley in 2012 and remains there, where it has been expanded into a three-day festival that will run Oct. 1-3 this year with activities at Beckley Exhibition Mine, New River Park and Tamarack.

“He was always cheerful and energetic even though I knew working on the festival wore him out,” Hickam wrote of Bolt. “One thing about Bill Bolt is he loved our little town so much that even after the coal mine closed along with his beloved machine shop, he and Reba chose to stay in Coalwood and remained there through floods, windstorms, government perfidy, and corporate greed.

“He was truly a great man without whose sly nod and a wink in our direction there would have been no Rocket Boys. When I was in West Virginia on business in August, I took the time to drive down to Coalwood, just to visit Bill and Reba. I sure am glad I did. His last words to me were, ‘You be careful now, Sonny!’ Well, I will, Mr. Bolt, I swan.”

Funeral services for Bolt will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday from the Fanning Funeral Home Chapel in Welch. Friends may call from 6 to 8 p.m. today at the funeral home.

— Bill Archer writes for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Email: barcher@bdtonline.com

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