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Volunteering Takes George Kralovec From Cockpits to Classrooms

After more than 45 years in the workforce, a lot of people would be happy to kick back and relax.

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George Kralovec. Image courtesy of George Kralovec.

They’re not George Kralovec.

The former fighter pilot is now a STEM education volunteer with the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program, helping teach science courses in Virginia schools. He’s also putting his military credentials to work as an advocate for the Citizens Climate Lobby, a nonprofit arguing for action to fight climate change.

Now 75, Kralovec says he keeps a roughly 80-hour schedule every week. “It keeps me from getting bored,” he said. “I’m constantly challenged.”

Jim Tolbert, who works with Kralovec at the Citizens Climate Lobby, said Kralovec is the type of volunteer who can communicate science to anyone. “George really does groundwork,” Tolbert said. “He does a lot of intriguing policy work on the security side, sharpening our message so we can deliver it to members of Congress. But he’s also willing to go stand out at subway stations during a climate march trying to enlist people.”

Kralovec has a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois. He spent 26 years in the Marine Corps, flying F-4 Phantoms in more than 200 missions during the war in Vietnam. He taught other pilots how to fly as an instructor, then went to work for the jet’s builder, McDonnell-Douglas – later bought by Boeing – for 20 years as a government relations manager.

He hit some turbulence after he retired in 2010. He faced a bout with cancer, lost his wife and watched his son – also a Marine – leave with his family for a far-off assignment on Okinawa, Japan. To keep busy, Kralovec started volunteering with senior citizens’ groups, studying Civil War history and working on a certificate in sustainability studies.

Then in August 2012, he saw a AAAS newspaper ad looking for retired scientists and engineers to help science teachers in public schools. Looking for a challenge, the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program seemed like a good fit. “The thought of going into an elementary school or middle school at age 70 and trying to figure out how to relate to kids today and be of value to them, that seemed to be a big challenge.”

Kralovec signed up and reported for his first day at Bull Run Elementary, in the D.C. suburbs, expecting to work one day a week helping out. He found out a half-dozen teachers wanted to work with him. Some days, that meant sharpening pencils – but on others, it meant presenting classroom exercises that took 20 or 30 hours to prepare.

“If I was doing an astronomy class for third graders, and I knew the teachers had really prepared these kids well and they were up on their math, I would say, ‘Let’s figure out if the Earth were the size of this racquetball I just brought in, would the sun fit in this classroom if it were scaled to the same size.’ That would be a wonderful hour-long exercise for the kids.”

Kralovec later moved to a smaller Fairfax County school, Little Run Elementary. The school sits next to a stream that eventually leads to the Potomac River, and he supported sixth-grade teacher Misty Clatterbuck to use the stream as a laboratory. Students took water samples, counted and sorted insects and other invertebrates and entered the results into a mathematical formula to help gauge the stream’s water quality.

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George Kralovec and Misty Clatterbuck. Image courtesy of George Kralovec.

Clatterbuck and Kralovec’s collaboration led to an award from the AAAS STEM Volunteer Program in 2018 for the most outstanding volunteer-teacher partnership. Kralovec is still volunteering at Little Run and in two other Fairfax County schools, Daniels Run and Canterbury Woods, where he hopes to set up a similar test program. At the same time, he continues to give his energy to climate advocacy. The more he dug into the science, the more he thought, “Holy mackerel, we’re way deeper into this and further behind than most people would imagine,” he said. He became convinced that continuing to pump out carbon emissions would be catastrophic but saw no political solutions.

That led him to the Citizens Climate Lobby, which advocates for taxing fossil fuels and returning the revenue to the public. He now argues for action to fight climate change on national security grounds. Tolbert, who works on convincing conservatives to support climate action, said Kralovec’s military and defense-industry background “certainly plays well” with that audience. “A lot of times, with older people in the climate audience, the conversation starts a little bumpier. But he has this way of talking to people that really resonated not only with people in his age category, but with a number of College Republicans.”

All Kralovec’s activity leaves him wondering how he’ll fulfill all the commitments he’s made. But he adds, “The satisfaction is tremendous.”

“I get to work with the most incredible people you would ever want to meet in both programs,” he said. “I don’t have any dull moments.”

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Matt Smith