HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — When Mirian Dyns moved from Stanford University in California to Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute, she was worried about the schools, about activities for her three boys and about making the small Alabama city home after life in California.
Two years later, those worries have been put to rest.
Her boys are enrolled in the Madison County school system, and their grades are improving, their mom says. That’s due in no small part to smaller classrooms and more involved teachers, she said.
“Their teachers are in constant contact with me, it was really surprising,” she said. “I also know how they are doing all throughout the semester.”
The slower pace of life in Huntsville gives the family more time to spend together. Instead of spending time on the road commuting, Dyns is home earlier. The family now has time for hiking and biking, as well as taking time to enjoy the Space Center and Children’s Museum.
Huntsville, in short, is no backwater. It boasts the oldest continuously-running symphony in the nation, an expanding arts museum and two of the most-visited attractions in the state of Alabama.
“It’s all due to Wernher von Braun,” said Jane Ryals, executive director of the Huntsville Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “The Germans were used to a certain level of culture, certain activities. He made sure we got them here.”
Von Braun was the central figure in Germany’s pre-war rocket development program, responsible for the design of the deadly V-2 combat rocket during World War II. After the war, he was brought to Huntsville as part of a secret operation and became the first director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, the original home of NASA.
A fan of the symphony, he helped recruit musicians to the city, as well as some of the brightest engineering minds of the time.
That effort continues to pay dividends for Huntsville today, with arts and cultural activities bringing in visitors from neighboring Nashville, 60 miles north.
“There is a lot to do here, people are always pleasantly surprised,” Ryals said. “The botanic gardens, the museum complex, (and) we’re on the Robert Trent Jones golf trail.”
Huntsville’s known nationally for its Space Camp for kids, and for the U.S. Space Center. More than 100,000 people visited this summer for a Stars Wars exhibit at the center.
Because it is a hub of aerospace engineering businesses, the city has more than 800 conventions every year — some as large as 6,000 people. Many Fortune 500 companies are located within the city, and corporate travel remains strong despite the weak economy.
“Here, you just never know, your next-door neighbor really could be a rocket scientist,” Ryals said, noting that the city boasts more scientists and engineers per capita than any other city in the nation.
At least one rocket scientist was stunned when he visited Huntsville after being recruited by the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
A veteran of NASA’s space program in Washington, D.C., Kader Frendi didn’t think he’d take a job at the university. “I remember, my wife didn’t even come with me,” he said. “She wanted to move to Boston; it was her favorite city. But when I got here, I was amazed — the city sells itself.”
He was won over by the proximity to NASA, scores of high-tech start-ups and one of the most promising aerospace engineering programs in the nation.
“This program can hold its own with anyone,” he says firmly. “Cal Tech, MIT — all those programs. They aren’t any better.”
Southern hospitality also charmed the Frendis. “That’s not just a rumor,” he said. “People here, they are open, friendly. It was different than I expected; more open than I thought the South would be.”