Encounter with local TV idol not exactly as planned

By Patrick Palmer | February 25, 2022

Major Astro, played by Tom Leahy, enthralled youngsters across Kansas through the 1960s and part of the ’70s and ’80s. Courtesy photo

I recently found myself in an online exchange about local TV shows of our youth. Of course, that brought up memories of my after-grade school favorite, Major Astro.

The concept of the show that debuted in 1960 took advantage of the nation’s burgeoning interest in the space race, along with Wichita’s rich history of aviation and aerospace. Tom Leahey played the titular host, an astronaut living on a remote space station. Major Astro’s spacesuit and set had a homemade look, typical of a low-budget local show, but that didn’t matter as I watched each afternoon on the small black-and-white television in our living room.  The Major’s daily mission was communicating with the children of earth, introducing cartoons such as The Mighty Hercules, Felix the Cat and Astro Boy. I still remember the theme songs to each of them.

A four-cent postcard to the TV station with your name and address was all it took to join the Major Astro Space Patrol and get the cypher key for the secret coded communiques from space he would show. I carried my card proudly, treating it as a sacred pass into an exclusive society. 

When I was around seven, I begged my parents to take me to meet Major Astro in person at a special Saturday gathering of the Space Patrol at the Boulevard Plaza, an open-air mall on the city’s southeast side. We arrived about the same time as Major Astro, so I had to scramble and squirm my way through the crowd of crewcuts and pigtails to get to the front and be in the Major’s line of sight. I waved frantically when he called for five volunteers to be in the first contest of the day and was beyond thrilled to be chosen.

“I’m going to give each of you a cracker, but don’t eat it right away,” Major Astro instructed the chosen five as he handed out the crackers. “When I say ‘Go,’ eat the cracker as fast as you can. The first one who finishes and can whistle gets a prize. Ready… set… go!”

I chewed my cracker quickly but made the tactical error of only partially swallowing it. Nonetheless, I tugged on the Major’s spacesuit and sputtered as best I could “I’m ready.” Major Astro squatted down next to me, his head only inches from mine.

“OK, let me hear you whistle,” he said.

I took a deep breath, puckered my lip — and blew pasty chunks of half-chewed cracker onto his rugged face. Several nearby children laughed as Major Astro, ever the trouper and undoubtedly experienced with such childish mishaps, casually brushed the crumbs from his face, stood up and looked down at me.

“I don’t think you were ready,” he said with a smile before turning to the other competitors.

An assistant handed me a glossy eight-by-ten autographed picture of the Major. I melted back into the crowd of youngsters, mortified that I’d not just blown my first interaction with a TV star but had given his face a saltine stucco. I was sure that someone at the TV station that carried Major Astro would know who I was and kick me out of the Space Patrol. 

None of that happened, of course, and the show was right where it should be when I tuned in Channel 3 for his program the following Monday. I remained a loyal viewer until one day I wasn’t. Major Astro had become a show for little kids and I’d become far too worldly for that.

The show aired on KARD-TV, the flagship of the Kansas State Network, a collection of smaller stations throughout the state that mostly carried programming from the Wichita mother ship, giving the Major a statewide audience. It remained on the air on KSN until 1973. The show had a revival on another Wichita station in the mid-80s, with the Major delivering his final message from his space station in 1989. Tom Leahy died in 2010, leaving a lasting legacy, and not just as the Major. A friend who worked with him in Wichita broadcasting for years calls him “the kindest man ever.” I wonder how many of his estimated 200,000 Major Astro Space Patrol members ended up pursuing a career in aerospace because of their TV astronaut hero.

I found a clip of Major Astro’s signature signoff on the Internet, even though I could have easily recited the words he used to close his show each day without it. Viewed through the lens of adulthood, it would be easy to consider his sentiments corny and sappy. To we adults of a certain age, they might even sound like whistling past that great space station in the sky. But during these often-graceless times we find ourselves in, maybe they’re also just what we need.

“See you tomorrow, when everything will be A-OK and all systems will be go! Happy orbits, boys and girls!”

Patrick Palmer is a Wichita native who worked in the news business and corporate communications until retiring in 2018. He now lives in southern California. pfpal@yahoo.com.