Squealing uncontrollably, two girls raced off the stage in Riverfront Park and dashed to a group of friends.
They stretched their T-shirts out in front of them and hopped up and down, their faces creased as though in pain.
“We got Scott O’Grady’s autograph,” they shrieked, almost unintelligibly. “He signed our shirts. He signed our SHIRTS!”
Melissa Pingree, 10, and Melissa Cagle, 12, were among the first to get the famous pilot’s signature.
They had plenty of competition.
The hometown boy attracted admirers of all ages who came with their kids, their dogs and their neighbors to the grassy hillside beside the clock tower.
“He’s a cool guy, and he’s one of everyone else,” said Tracy Lay, 14. “He doesn’t even like the word ‘hero.’ He says his rescuers are the real heroes.”
“He’s just a normal guy,” said Lisa McKay, who stopped by the park on her lunch hour. “He’s clean-cut and a good example of someone who takes responsibility.”
Park-goers braved the hot sun and grabbed a front-row seat to history in the making. Many wanted a personal glimpse of the guy whose face graced the covers of national news magazines. Others wanted his autograph on their baseball glove or miniature U.S. flag.
A few just wanted to say hi.
“I got to shake his hand,” said Courtney Brousseau, 14, of Mercer Island, Wash., her face awash in a perma-grin. “He’s got a firm handshake, a self-confident handshake.”
Courtney’s mom, Jan, said O’Grady was the “kid next door” forced into an extraordinary situation that captured a nation’s attention.
“He showed great bravery and faith,” she said. “He’s truly a fine role model for our youth to see.”
Ballet teacher Tessa Williams, who clips stories about O’Grady for her children, said she was proud he’s from Spokane. “Everyone he comes in contact with must be proud.”
Parents like Jennifer Walther, a teacher at Ferris High School, wanted her two young children to see that perseverance pays off.
“The nicest part of it is that he saw something through to the end,” Walther said. “So many kids give up on different tasks. He knew what he had to do and accomplished it.”
While many details O’Grady told about his six-day ordeal in Bosnia might fade with time, twins Darren and Todd Mallery, 12, learned a lesson about survival they won’t quickly forget.
“I learned to stay alive, never lose hope and eat as many bugs as you can,” Darren said.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Kristina Johnson Staff writer Staff writers Bonnie Harris and Isamu Jordan contributed to this report.