Alexander (Al) Springer was a typical boy growing up in Anoka in the mid-20th century. Formal portrait photographs reveal a light-haired, smiling child who attended Franklin Elementary School in the early 1950s, and Springer went on to Anoka High School and a school football career. Part of the Junior Achievement program in Minnesota, designed to prepare young people for jobs in business, he met Dawn Ryman, who soon became his girlfriend and later his wife. Out of high school, Springer joined the Navy, where he would have a brush with astronomical fame. 

We know all of this because Al Springer, still an Anoka resident and a longtime member of ACHS, recently brought us a photograph album and allowed us to scan images and documents to tell his story. More importantly, he took the time to sit down with the Archivist and add his memories to the images — the story that not even an image can fully capture. Springer’s memories give extra depth to photographs and newspaper clippings that, while interesting in themselves, tell only part of the story.

A small clipping tells us that he played football in high school; memory recalls that Springer really enjoyed playing, that the team was All-Conference in 1959, and that coaches Wayne Deetz and Stan Nelson said Springer was the best lineman they had. A prom photograph shows Springer and then-girlfriend Dawn Ryman dressed to the nines, and a 1962 wedding invitation marks the beginning of their marriage. Memory provides the details that are missing: the two met in the Junior Achievement program, where Springer was a production manager for the manufacture of “snicky-snack,” small statues made of bottle caps and plates meant for hanging jewelry on. Springer took to offering Ryman drives home after work … which her father approved only if Springer removed his Elvis-inspired sideburns. Springer considered that more than a fair trade, and the sideburns are noticeably absent in their 1958 prom photo. The Springers are still happily married more than 50 years later.

Springer’s time in the Navy also provides stories. Stationed primarily at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, he achieved the rank of Storekeeper Third Class before he was discharged to the Naval Reserve in 1962. But photographs from the album and Springer himself provide more interesting detail. His squadron of fighter pilots and other personnel, VS22, was assigned in 1961 to the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain. Springer already had a personal connection with the ship: his uncle, a WWII veteran of the Normandy invasion, had returned to the United States on the carrier.

He himself would soon have a memorable experience on board. Springer’s first photographs taken on May 5, 1961 don’t show much; looking out over the Atlantic Ocean and clear sky, all that can be seen is a small dark speck in the distance, later carefully circled on the prints. But Springer remembers the event clearly. The dark speck was the Freedom 7 space capsule of NASA’s Mercury program, and inside it was Alan Shepard, the first U.S. citizen in space. As the photographs progress, the Marine Corps helicopters that retrieved Shepard and the shuttle come nearer, eventually depositing shuttle and pilot onto the deck of the USS Lake Champlain, assigned to Shepard’s retrieval. Other photographs, copies of those taken by official photographers, also fill Springer’s album, showing Shepard himself and the capsule up close. But it is Springer’s photos, with the dark speck gradually coming closer and the crowd on deck watching the descent and retrieval, that provide a personal look at this Anokan’s brush with the space program.

Photographs, documents and other artifacts are an important part of any historical collection, whether it is stored in a museum or your own home. The stories that go with them — knowledge or memories that only you might have — are equally if not more important, bringing the artifacts to life and providing a connection for someone else to find.

Audra Hilse is the collections manager for the Anoka County Historical Society. This column originally ran in History21, the member newsletter of ACHS, in November/December 2019.

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