Kids awed by school's namesake, Charles Bolden: former Marine, astronaut and now, possible head of NASA

As retired Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden strolled into the main ballroom Friday at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's Officers' Club, the students fell silent and straightened up in their chairs.

The students of Bolden Elementary/Middle School are understandably reverential toward the man after whom their school is named. After all, Bolden is a retired two-star general, former space shuttle commander and President Barack Obama's pick to run NASA.

"He's a pretty important guy," said outgoing eighth-grader Michael Beeler. "It's sort of like seeing the president."

Last week, Bolden was nominated to become the first black man to run the nation's space program. He visited the air station to see off Bolden Elementary/Middle School's first class of eighth-grade students. The school began seventh and eighth grades in July 2008, giving military families in Laurel Bay the option of sending their children to either Bolden or Robert Smalls Middle School.

Bolden, a Columbia native, was selected to join NASA in May 1980, became an astronaut in August 1981 and logged more than 680 hours in space. Most notable of his four space flights was Bolden's part in a five-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in April 1990, in which the shuttle's crew released the Hubble space telescope into orbit. Bolden left NASA in 1994 to return to the military. He retired in 2003 after 34 years in the Corps.

During a brief address to the school's 25 graduates and their families, Bolden, 62, urged the students to push themselves and take chances in life.

"Do everything you do with passion," he said. "If you don't take risks, it's kind of tough to win, kind of tough to succeed. People who do not fail have probably never tried."

Bolden also spoke during a drug education and resistance assembly at the school later in the day

If confirmed by the Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology,Bolden will be just the second astronaut to serve as the NASA administrator on more than an interim basis in the agency's 51-year history. A date for Bolden's confirmation hearing has not been set.

It didn't take a presidential appointment to make Bolden something of a celebrity in the halls of Bolden Elementary, said principal Jacque Taton- Saunders.

"He's always been our own special general," she said. "Around the halls of our school, you hear things like, 'We don't do things like that at Bolden,' 'That's not the Bolden way,' or 'Do you think Gen. Bolden got to be an astronaut acting like that?' He's been a great role model."The school was built about 60 years ago and named in honor of Bolden in 2004, Taton-Saunders said. Friday was Bolden's first visit to the school since 2007.

Bolden isn't only a role model to the students, said Lt. Josiah Nicely, spokesman for the air station.

"Gen. Bolden is an accomplished individual, an exemplary citizen and a model Marine," Nicely said. "His character and accomplishments are an inspiration to all."

Jack Farnam, another outgoing eighth-grader, said Bolden's message came through loud and clear.

"What he said was just right for the occasion," he said. "He was absolutely right about living with passion and compassion and being able to take risks. I think it was one of the best speeches I've ever heard."