Chalkboard Champion Freida Riley: She Was the Inspiration Behind the Rocket Boys

riley[1]One of the most amazing teachers ever was a West Virginia educator named Freida Joy Riley. This dedicated teacher is responsible for inspiring young students in a small coal mining town to pursue careers in NASA, and preparing them academically to succeed there.

Freida was born in 1937 in Squire, West Virginia, to J.F. and Sallie Beavers Riley. As a high school student, she attended Big Creek High School, where she was ranked first in her class. Following her high school graduation, she attended Concord College and then completed graduate work at Ohio State University and West Virginia University.

After college, Frieda was hired to teach at her alma mater, Big Creek High School in War, West Virginia. She worked there during the late 1950s and early 1960s teaching math, science, chemistry, and physics. As an educator, she was considered dynamic, but tough. She was widely known for her inspiring work with students, including Homer Hickam, Jr., who achieved his seemingly unattainable goal of working for NASA. After Homer retired, he became a highly acclaimed writer, publishing a 1998 memoir entitled Rocket Boys which soared to the top of the best seller lists. In the book, Homer gave a great deal of credit to Freida for his professional successes. Eventually, the story became the 1999 feature film October Sky, with actress Laura Dern portraying Freida. The talented educator also appeared in Homer’s two follow-up memoirs, The Coalwood Way published in 2000, and Sky of Stone published in 2002.

In the last days of her life, Freida suffered from Hodgkin’s Disease. Nevertheless, she insisted on continuing with her teaching, even when  it was necessary for her students to carry her to her classroom on a stretcher. She passed away in 1969, when she was only 31 years old. She is interred at Grandview Memory Gardens in Bluefield, Virginia.

The Freida J. Riley Award was established in her honor and is awarded annually to an American educator who overcomes adversity or makes an enormous sacrifice to positively impact students. The award is sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation and administered by the Partnership for America’s Future.Concord College has also established an annual scholarship in Riley’s name.