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Release: 00-183

His daughter needed a harp. Since he couldn’t afford to buy her
one, NASA engineer Dave Ricks decided to build it.

Ricks, a 43-year-old propellant subsystem manager at NASA’s
Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., had no experience
either playing the harp or building one. But he was determined.

“Emily was 5 years old when she first said she wanted to play a
harp,” Ricks said of his eldest daughter, now 12. “My wife Polly told
her she had to take piano lessons for a year before she could study
the harp.”

A year later, Emily was taking lessons from Carol McClure in
Nashville, on a borrowed harp. It only took her instructor three
months to determine that Emily had talent. But that meant she
needed another harp.

“We checked into buying a harp, but a concert harp costs as much
as a good used minivan,” Ricks said. “Then you need a minivan to
haul it around in.”

Ricks and his father, Earl, a retired Department of the Army civilian
who worked for the Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal in
Huntsville, Ala., joined forces in 1996 to build the mini concert harp
that Emily played in her first recital. It took four months.

Building a harp from scratch is no quick, easy task, they found.
Each piece must be carefully cut, molded to perform a specific
function, and securely fastened to other parts. The main elements
of the harp — the sound box, soundboard, neck, column and base —
are all made of different woods.

“You start by making a mold that will be used to shape the sound
box,” said Ricks. “I started with a layer of maple, then added a layer
of sitka spruce, then another layer of maple veneer.” He made the
neck of plywood and hard rock maple and the base of maple. He
also fabricated a brass crown to put atop the column.

Ricks now has made three harps: a lap harp, studio harp and the
mini concert harp, each progressively larger. He wants to build two

A chemical engineer by profession, Ricks has a bachelor’s degree
from Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. He is a Huntsville native.
Ricks and his wife Polly have two other children: Ivy and William. All
the children study piano and swim. Ivy also plays violin and ice

“We feel playing the harp is Emily’s calling from God,” said Ricks,
who has worked at the Marshall Center since 1989. “With all the
obstacles we had to overcome, we never would have been able to
do it otherwise.