Alita Dickerson, former reporter and newspaper publisher, was awakened by the telephone at 6 a.m. Monday. Dickerson, who will turn 83 Sunday, is not accustomed to getting such early calls. In fact, living alone in her small, Pomona apartment, she is not used to getting many calls at all.
But, Dickerson has applied to become the first journalist in space, and reporters from all across the country wanted to know why.
Dickerson, who published the Smackover Journal in Smackover, Ark., from 1947 to 1951, is having a hard time understanding what all the fuss is about. "Being 82, that adds to the situation, but I don't think it adds to the problem," she said in her Southern drawl.
Neither does NASA.
"Being 82 would not hinder her at all," said Jennifer McKill, executive director of the Assn. of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, which will select a final candidate according to NASA's criteria.
"There is no age requirement," McKill said.
Applicants must be employed as journalists, with five years experience in either print or broadcasting. Free-lance journalists must be able to prove that their sold works are equal in quality and quantity to those of a full-time reporter.
Dickerson has not been employed by a newspaper since she left the Smackover Journal in 1951 and says she last wrote an article for a newspaper in Lewisville, Ark., about three years ago and published a book of poetry in the 1960s.
"If she can prove to our people that she has sold enough pieces to be considered a full-time journalist, obviously she has just as good a chance as anyone else," McKill said.
About 1,800 applications have been received so far, but McKill declined to say who has applied. "Several of what we consider to be big names have applied," she said. "And no, Walter Cronkite has not applied."
A final candidate and an alternate are expected to be chosen in April for an opening in September's space shuttle flight.
Dickerson said she has abilities that make her uniquely suited for the spot, qualifications which she included in her application letter.
"I've seen UFOs and talked to them," she said. "I believe that we're going to have some space contact soon, and this mental ability I have to talk to them will come in handy."
Dickerson's first contact with a UFO was in 1969, she said, when one hovered above her home. "They said they were too busy to talk to me."
Dickerson has never been one to let social conventions stand in her way. In the 1930s, when women were rarely seen in newsrooms, she wrote for the Shreveport, La., Times, and other smaller, weekly papers in the deep South.
In 1947, she said, she took over the Smackover Journal, a weekly newspaper in her home county about 40 miles north of Shreveport. Recovering from the death of her first husband, Dickerson said she poured herself into her work.
In 1951, Dickerson left Arkansas for Florida with her new husband, a journeyman printer.
Three years later, the Dickersons headed for California, settling first in Whittier, then in Upland. In 1978, eight years after her second husband died, Dickerson moved to Pomona.
After leaving the Smackover Journal, she continued to write free-lance pieces for Arkansas newspapers and compile collections of poetry and children's books, but she never again worked full time for a newspaper.
"My husband wanted me with him all the time, so that's what I did," she said.