- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

f you visited the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in 1976, you might have caught Bobbe Dyke’s first tour.

She has led 3,110 since.

Mrs. Dyke, 79, was one of 120 who signed on at the museum when it opened on the Mall in the year of the nation’s bicentennial. About 15 of the original volunteers remain on the job, she estimates.

Even after three decades of leading tours through the museum twice a week, she said, she never gets bored.

There is always a new artifact, a new discovery in the aviation or space industry or more history to learn. The former math and science teacher is required to keep up with the information, and that’s why she keeps coming back, she said.

“You can’t just sit back and say, ‘I’ve learned all of this.’ As everything happens, you have to learn — in the museum and on your own,” said Mrs. Dyke, who travels an hour and a half from her home in Lusby, Md. to the museum.

“When I walked into the museum this morning, I was just as enthralled as when I walked in 30 years ago — probably more because I have a better appreciation.”

Besides the mandatory six-month training before volunteering at the museum, the docent tour guides are trained on new material once a month. They are re-evaluated on their tours every other year. So it’s no wonder members of Mrs. Dyke’s tour group come away stunned by her encyclopedic knowledge.

“I had no idea there was this vast information of space exploration and air flight,” said Art Sween, 61, of Altoona, Iowa. “I loved it.”

A black headset with a microphone rests on her gray curls and slipper shoes keep her feet comfortable. Her job is to guide tourists up and down the three-block-long museum for a two-hour tour on the museum’s artifacts. “You have to have a strong back and strong feet,” she said.

She shows visitors the airplanes, shuttles and other artifacts while telling the stories behind each one, she said.

“People think it’s a museum of machines, but it’s not. It’s a museum of people and their hopes and their dreams and their successes and failures. But we don’t have very many failures on display,” she says with a laugh.

Her tour group quickly catches on to her plan. At the beginning of the tour, she explains the history of the Wright Model Ex “Vin Fiz” airplane. Calbraith Rodgers flew one in 1911 while advertising a grape soda named Vin Fiz. In his flight, he dropped hundreds of cards advertising the soda that read, “Greetings from up high. Drink Vin Fiz,” Mrs. Dyke tells her group.

“It was the word’s first flying commercial,” Mrs. Dyke says, as several members of her tour group chuckle.

She spices up her tour with suspense when she explains the mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart. With an almost-empty fuel tank, the pilot was nearing Howland Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard on the island’s base knew she was coming because her of increasing signal strength, she said.

“It was first very faint,” she said, softly. “And then it became louder, louder, louder and louder,” she said, in a rapid tone while raising her voice. “And then it just stopped.”

By now, the 40 members of the group are on the tips of their toes as they strain their necks to hear every detail.

But they mustn’t spend too long on one story because there is way too much to tell in this museum. Mrs. Dyke breezes through the building like it’s her own back yard, stopping at each overhanging plane and spacecraft to tell its story. Tourists scramble to be in front to catch every tidbit.

She ends the tour at the museum’s Skylab, the first space station the United States launched. Engaging her group more, she asks them to look through the eyes of astronauts.

“What would it be like if you were to live in Skylab for three months? What would it be like for someone eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom for three months?” she asks. “Anything you worked with — it would float. Don’t put your screws down.”

After she says goodbye to her group, several people swarm to ask her questions. They think she must know every crevice and story behind all of the museum’s artifacts. “This is wonderful,” said Don Zimmerman, 70, who toured with Mrs. Dyke. “To think she’s been here as long as the museum is here, no wonder she knows everything.”

Well, not everything, she says. She has been trying to figure out which window of the 1964 Gemini 4 spacecraft the crew used to dispose of human waste.

“I know it sounds like such a dumb little thing, but it gets my curiosity piqued. And when I find out, I’m going to tell the other docents, and maybe the public,” she said.

These small quandaries assure her that she will not retire from her volunteer work any time soon, she said.

“I’m a volunteer — I do this for fun,” she said. Members of her tour group learn this, too.

“She’s terrific,” said Sandy Sween, 58, who accompanied her husband, Art, on the tour. “She must do it all the time, but she still seems excited.”

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