Friday, January 11, 2008

Deptford balloon story not just a lot of hot air

Thursday, January 10, 2008
By Jessica Driscoll

DEPTFORD TWP. A hot air balloon appears on the township's water tower, many of its street signs and its official web site, but many residents never give the symbol's meaning a second thought.

Now, some well-informed five- and six-year-olds will make sure they do.

On Wednesday, former mayor Bea Cerkez visited kindergarten students at Central Early Childhood Center to teach them about the first flight in America a flight she said "put Deptford on the map."

"Does anyone know what today is?" asked Cerkez, followed by a chorus of "January 9th" from her eager audience.

"That's right. And do you know what happened on this day more than 200 years ago? A man from France named Jean Pierre Blanchard took off on a hot air balloon from Philadelphia with his little dog and a letter from President George Washington. And he landed right here in Deptford."

In 1793, Blanchard left Philadelphia before an audience of dignitaries and traveled 15 miles before landing in the Deptford clearing. Cerkez encouraged students to visit the site on the lot of the old RCA building with their parents and to look for the tree which marks the historical spot.

Some students were way ahead of her.

"My Pop-Pop has a book of pictures with the balloon and where it landed," said Nicholas Lonergan, 5.

"And he showed me that tree and read the plaque on it."

Others had some important questions.

"Is the hot air balloon still in that tree?" asked Jacob Buchanan, 6.

Dr. Rena Alpert, a kindergarten teacher at Central, organizes Cerkez's visit each year and works on projects and stories about hot air balloons with her class. In the spring, students will visit the official DARE hot air balloon to learn more about how it flies.

"If it wasn't for Dr. Alpert, the day would go by and no one would remember what happened," said Cerkez.

"This is Deptford's major piece of history and it's so important that the site and the story are preserved. Every year, she calls me to come in to talk to the children and it's one of the nicest things I get to do all year."

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