CRESTON, Iowa — Walter Cunningham, the last surviving astronaut from the first successful crewed space mission in NASA’s Apollo program, died Tuesday in Houston. He was 90.  Cunningham was born in Creston, but left Iowa when he was around three years old.

Cunningham was one of three astronauts aboard the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, an 11-day spaceflight that beamed live television broadcasts as they orbited Earth, paving the way for the moon landing less than a year later. Cunningham, then a civilian, crewed the mission with Navy Capt. Walter M. Schirra and Donn F. Eisele, an Air Force major. Cunningham was the lunar module pilot on the space flight, which launched from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, Florida, on Oct. 11 and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda.

Though Cunningham had no real connection still to Creston, his parents are buried there. His childhood home is no longer. In 2002 a committee planning the Creston 4th of July Celebration invited Cunningham to be the parade Grand Marshal. He came here with his wife Dot. Creston Chamber Executive Ellen Gerharz was Chamber Director back in 2002, and got to spend time with Cunningham.

“He was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, if you didn’t know what his background was, you would never know how intelligent he was, having circled the Earth in the Apollo system,” said Gerharz. “He was very down to earth, very friendly, very approachable, and everybody felt that way.”

He left Gerharz with an autographed photo from his NASA days. But the 2002 event was not the only time he returned to this area.

“Then it was a year or two or three I’m not sure, the Aviation Museum in Greenfield, Iowa which is 25 miles maybe like northwest of Creston, each year they honor someone associated in the field of aviation,” said Gerharz. “He invited me and my office assistant at the time Peggy, to be there, so we got to see them again and that was very nice of them to do that.”

This time Cunningham had a book written about his life as an astronaut. He donated a book to the Creston Chamber of Commerce. 

The Apollo 7 Astronaut was born in Creston. His family moved to Illinois, and then back to Creston, before leaving Iowa for good.

“I’ve read recently he was very poor,” said Gerholz.  “He grew up poor, so again a great example that if you go to school, and you know, get an education, you can rise above a lot.”

Cunningham is not the only famous person to have Creston roots. Frank Phillips lived his early years in Creston, before moving to Oklahoma to found Phillips Petroleum.  One of the early Phillips gas stations in Iowa has been restored and now serves as the Creston Visitors Center off Highway 34 here. Also Marcia Wallace, the actress playing the receptionist  Carol Kester, on “The Bob Newhart Show,” was born in Creston. That show ran on CBS from 1972 to 1978.