How Devon Native Pete Conrad Overcame Dyslexia to Walk on the Moon
After a less than stellar academic career, he persisted in following his dreams, eventually graduating from Princeton University and becoming a NASA astronaut.
Pete Conrad was probably a natural-born pilot. But for the commander of Apollo 12 to land on the moon in 1969, some credit should also go to his mother.
It was Frances Conrad who, after her son failed out of the Haverford School in 1947, found him sobbing in his room.
“Mother, I’m so sorry,” said Conrad, who today would be diagnosed as dyslexic. “I can’t keep my eyes on the page. I get a headache when I look at the words; they all just … run together. Am I … stupid?”
Frances whispered, “I think not.”
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Devon, Conrad was a descendant of 17th-century Germantown settler Thones Kunders, whose family branches included Conards, Cunards and Conrads.
Conrad’s parents were Charles Conrad, who followed his family into real estate and banking, and Frances Vinson Conrad, described by biographer Howard Klausner as a “stately and elegant” beauty from Newark, N.J. The family lived on Waterloo Avenue in Devon in a comfortable house they called Roadside Cottage, with a nanny, chauffeur, maids and a chef.
According to Klausner, Charles didn’t work all that hard: “Early up and out, mornings in the office, lunch in town, maybe return to the office (and maybe not), the club in the afternoon, dinner in the dining room with Frances only—never with the children, who would be served by staff in their rooms—brandy and cigar and the Wall Street Journal in the evening, maybe a step down to Martini’s, the local speakeasy.”
Frances was the forceful one. When Charles insisted on naming their newborn son after himself, she relented—but only on the paperwork. “He will be called Peter,” she said.
And he was.
The Conrads’ comfortable life ended in the 1940s, when Conrad Sr. could no longer hide his long financial slide. Unlike many peers, he had a financial reserve that allowed him to hide a collapse in the values of his investments during the Depression. But he never cut back on his lifestyle, and eventually the reserve ran out. In 1942, he moved out of their Devon home, and Frances and the kids moved to a three-bedroom carriage house in St. Davids, where they were supported by her brother.
In 1945, Conrad found a summer job at the Paoli Airport. He mowed, swept and pulled weeds, then moved up to washing planes, fixing tires and changing oil. Occasionally, he rode along when his boss delivered planes. Conrad decided that he must have flying lessons, though he didn’t have the money.
Two years later, he rescued local pilot Margaret Lowell from a farmer’s meadow where she had landed dead-stick after her Piper’s engine had flooded. Conrad replaced the throttle and got Lowell back in the air. As thanks, Lowell, a flight instructor who’d trained women pilots during WWII, gave Conrad his first flying lessons. After a week, she let him take up her own plane—alone.
“By the time the Piper’s wheels touched the ground again, the flight plan for Charles Conrad Jr.’s life was filed,” wrote Klausner.
Flying became Conrad’s goal, but there was uncertainty about how far he could go with his academic performance. After all, he had just flunked out of the Haverford School, where he was below average in all but two subjects, despite tutoring and extra study halls.
“You will buckle down and do the work,” his mother said.
“Remember, son: The Conrads are a legacy at Haverford,” added his father.
Still, nothing changed. In 1947, the Conrads were informed that Haverford “would not be inviting Charles ‘Peter’ Conrad back for the 1947-48 school year.”
But Frances knew her son was intelligent. After a thorough search, she found the Darrow School, a 15-year-old New Lebanon, N.Y., institution with Shaker roots that took a “hands to work” approach, emphasizing goal-setting and physical labor.
At the time, dyslexia wasn’t considered a legitimate educational issue. “It was no touchy-feely approach,” wrote Klausner. “Peter would have to repeat the 11th grade. He would have to read Homer and Chaucer and study the Dred Scott decision, and solve the same calculus problems he would have at Haverford.”
There were also tasks such as chopping firewood, planting trees and taking food to the needy. It was part of what Darrow called a “systems” education.
“To fly an airplane, there is a system—a series of preparations and tasks and operations that must be followed in the correct sequence,” Klausner explained.
Learning at Darrow was like that, and there was a goal at the end. For Conrad, the goal was flying.
Darrow headmaster Lambert Heyniger later said that he knew within five minutes of meeting Conrad that there was nothing wrong with him. He wasn’t an idiot or rebellious, just a kid with a lot of energy, curiosity and “moxie.”
“Peter would get through this,” wrote Klausner, describing the challenge Conrad now faced. “Or he wasn’t going to get to fly—not to the places and in the planes he dreamed of flying, anyway.”
For the rest of his career—and his life—Conrad remained impatient with armchair theorists and laser-focused on what was tangible and could be experienced. The combination made him irreverent and impulsive, simultaneously lifting Conrad toward his goals and, sometimes, threatening them.
After graduating from Princeton University in 1953, Conrad was commissioned a Navy ensign and assigned to the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Despite a typical Marine drill sergeant shouting in his face, Conrad sailed through basic training—for the simple reason that he wanted to fly the Navy’s jets. Standing with arms outstretched, holding a bucket of sand in each hand, was just something he had to grin and bear.
Designated a naval aviator in 1954, Conrad became a fighter pilot, serving several years on aircraft carriers and as a flight instructor. In 1958, he was accepted at the Navy’s test-pilot school and invited to apply for NASA’s first class of astronauts. He soon washed out of the program.
The problem was the attendant nonsense, like the inkblot test. Fellow candidate Alan Shepard told Conrad that the Navy was looking for virility in its astronauts, so the correct answer was that each inkblot looked like something sexual. Conrad responded accordingly.
That worked until the psychiatrist presented a blank white card and asked Conrad to tell a story about it. “I’m sorry, Doc. I can’t,” said Conrad. “You’ve got it upside down.”
When the Navy asked for a stool sample, Conrad presented it gift wrapped, walked out and was subsequently rated “not suited for long-duration flight.” He reapplied and, in 1962, joined NASA.
Three years later, Conrad was a pilot on the Gemini 5 mission, which circled the earth for five days—a record at the time. The following year, he commanded Gemini 11, which set an altitude record of 850 miles and docked with another spacecraft. In 1969, he commanded Apollo 12, on which he spent almost eight hours on the surface of the moon.
Stepping off the lunar module onto the Ocean of Storms, Conrad—at only 5-foot-6—said, “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil [Armstrong], but that’s a long one for me.”
His words were the result of a bet with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who had insisted in a private conversation with Conrad that such moments were scripted by NASA. To refute that, Conrad told Fallaci what he would say. After all, Conrad’s motto was “If you can’t be good, be colorful.”
At Darrow, Conrad was on honor roll by the spring of 1948. He was also captain and quarterback of the football team, and had spots on the baseball and hockey teams. Despite the remembered trauma of appearing as the Virgin Mary in a fourth grade Christmas tableau at Haverford, he happily tried out and won parts with the Darrow Players.
A highlight of his big turnaround came in the spring of 1949. Home for the weekend, he’d flown takeoffs and landings most of the day, then stopped in a local flower shop for a boutonniere for a dance he would attend that night. Across the street, he saw Leslie Severinghaus, the headmaster at Haverford who had cut him loose two years earlier.
“Mr. Severinghaus,” he called. “It’s Peter Conrad, sir.”
Severinghaus, who’d been strolling with two other prominent Main Liners, professed to be impressed that Conrad had done so well at Darrow. It was, he observed, just a matter of putting the old nose to the grindstone.
“And where will you be heading next year, lad?” he asked. “City College?”
“As a matter of fact, I’ll be attending Princeton,” replied Conrad. “On a full Navy scholarship.”
According to Klausner, Conrad savored the look on Severinghaus’ face for the rest of his life.