Sunday, July 18, 1999
Lebanon's code of silence shields Armstrong
BY CHUCK MARTIN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Stacy Webb may be one of few in Lebanon who didn't recognize the older gentleman wearing the khaki pants, a tenant at her parents' office building where she works as a receptionist.
Neil Armstrong gives a thumbs up, as Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin listens during a gathering at Kennedy Space Center.
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Oh, she knew his name was Neil Armstrong. She just didn't know until recently who that was that he was the first man to walk on the moon.
That's who he is? she says, wide-eyed. My parents told me he was somebody famous, I just figured he couldn't be too famous or he wouldn't be here.
She can be forgiven. At 20, Ms. Webb was born a decade after Mr. Armstrong made his giant leap on the Sea of Tranquility. In fuzzy television pictures, he gained world fame as an undaunted explorer, and a skilled and fearless pilot. He was a hero.
But in his former Warren County home of Lebanon a quiet town shy of 13,000, with clean-swept red brick sidewalks, quaint antiques shops and breezes perfumed with apple pie potpourri most know him as a dabbling farmer, successful businessman, behind-the-scenes community leader and, above all, an average guy who never acted like he was too famous to live in a small town.
A benign conspiracy
They also know him as a man who has vigilantly, sometimes fiercely, guarded his privacy. And from the beginning, the people of Lebanon have been willing to assist him in this benign conspiracy.
They don't ask for his autograph. They don't point him out to strangers. They don't like to talk about him, especially to reporters.
We have all respected his privacy, says retired Lebanon businessman George Henkle, who served with Mr. Armstrong on the board of the Countryside YMCA in Lebanon. He is one of the best people I've ever known, and that's all I want to say.
At 68, Mr. Armstrong is unassuming, even ordinary looking. But Lebanon postal clerk Patsie Gillespie recognizes his steely blue eyes waiting in line.
I say "Hi,' she says. But I can't say "Hi, Mr. Armstrong' because someone behind him in line might hear. They might bother him.
To an outsider, it's fascinating that the citizenry maintains this unofficial code of silence, considering most know that Mr. Armstrong no longer lives in town. He moved to Indian Hill (but no one will say exactly when).
Still, he lived in Lebanon for years and owns farmland nearby. Occasionally, he stops by his office a small, unmarked suite in a building across from a used car lot and bowling alley, shared with a dentist, an Internet access company and insurance agents.
He pumps his own gas in town and grabs a bite at the Big Boy.
These are reasons enough for folks in Lebanon to guard their adopted astronaut.
The quiet citizen
It was the size and remoteness of Warren County that lured him in the first place. Mr. Armstrong grew up in Wapakoneta, Ohio, a town about the same size as Lebanon.
After leaving NASA in 1971 and while teaching at the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Armstrong moved his family to a house north of Lebanon. In 1972, he bought a farmhouse and more than 300 acres.
Some said he moved to Warren County to be closer to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton. Others believed he moved to get away from prying city folk in Cincinnati.
When he arrived in Lebanon, he walked the streets, ate at local restaurants and became involved in community projects, such as raising money for the Countryside YMCA. But it didn't take long for word to get around that the town's celebrated new resident didn't want to ride in parades or make speeches.
It wasn't like he even said anything, says golfing buddy and former Lebanon mayor Jack Hedges.
Everyone just knew.
I think a lot of people were excited when they first heard he was moving to town, says Jack Brooks, owner of The One Hair Salon in downtown Lebanon. But when they found out this was the way it was going to be, they treated him like everyone else.
Mr. Brooks gave haircuts in the 1970s to the Armstrongs' young sons, Mark and Eric. His ex-wife, Janet, always brought the boys in, he says. Someone in his salon told him who she was but Mr. Brooks never asked about her husband never called her by name.
Georgie Puckett tells a similar story. Before she took her job as waitress at the Frisch's on Columbus Avenue, Ms. Puckett worked at Town & Country Dry Cleaners, down the street.
We all knew who he was, she says. But when we asked what name to put on his ticket, he would say: "N.A. Armstrong.' Like we couldn't figure that out.
Ms. Puckett remembers what he looks like, so she'll recognize him if he comes in to the restaurant. She hasn't seen him lately.
I never asked his name either, says Evie Blankenship, who owns the dry cleaners with her husband, Mark. I just figured he didn't want any acknowledgement.
Lebanon is, and always has been, a polite and friendly town. So many residents don't hesitate to say hello to their shy hero when they recognize him. If there no outsiders around.
I've spoken to him several times, says Frankie Proffitt, a secretary at the Warren County Extension office, who used to work near Mr. Armstrong's office.
He's very personable, says Ms. Proffitt, who guesses she last saw Mr. Armstrong four years ago. But he doesn't stop to chit-chat.
He's quiet and serious, but acquaintances say Mr. Armstrong can be a conversationalist even with new friends.
Brian Carr, a flight instructor and part-owner of the Warren County Airport who met Mr. Armstrong only a few years ago, agrees.
He gave flying lessons to Mr. Armstrong's second wife, Carol. But Mr. Carr claims he was never nervous about teaching the wife of the world's most famous pilot.
They were both really great about it, he says.
Mr. Carr had pleasant real estate dealings with Mr. Armstrong this spring, buying 130 acres of property from him adjoining the airport. He talks more freely about his Neil Armstrong encounters than others. But Mr. Carr is not a native, having moved to Warren County four years ago.
Maybe that's why he can talk.
Last place on earth
Over the years, many have speculated on why Mr. Armstrong is so reclusive. Fellow astronauts recall him as a loner during training, long before the historic space mission.
A few contradictions make this passion for privacy difficult to understand. After the moonwalk, for instance, Mr. Armstrong appeared on the Bob Hope Show and on Chrysler television commercials. This year, he threw out the first pitch at the Houston Astros opening baseball game, and he introduced a singer at a music festival in Italy.
But in Lebanon, the contradictions don't matter. Only Mr. Armstrong's silent wishes.
He'd be worth millions if he would go public and make endorsements, says retired Warren County state representative Corwin Nixon. That's why I respect him so much.
Sandy Fuston, who operates the Village Ice Cream Parlor downtown with her father, Dave Hartsock, says Mr. Armstrong began avoiding reporters in earnest in 1986, after the Challenger space shuttle explosion killed six astronauts. Until then, Mr. Armstrong was almost a regular at her parlor, favoring the daily soup and sandwich special, washed down with water.
He was on a committee (the President's Commission) that investigated the crash, she says. Everyone (in the media) wanted to talk to him then.
But there are incidents that suggest he is uncomfortable with even seemingly innocent public encounters, like the time the Armstrongs were eating dinner at a Columbus restaurant.
This man brought his little boy over, says Dick James, a friend at the table that night who owns the Harmon Golf Club in Lebanon. The man pointed at Neil and said: "See him. That's Neil Armstrong. Now go get his autograph.'
Neil's wife said: "It's time for us to go.' And we left.
Like others, Mr. James' jaw tightens and his eyes turn suspicious when questioned about the reluctant hero. But the more questions he dodges, the harder it seems for him to contain his admiration.
The first time I met him, I tried to talk about the moon, Mr. James says, pausing from working on a mower on a trimmed green. That was the last time.
He doesn't want to talk about that, he says, almost angrily, pointing to the sky. He wants to talk about golf, about mowing the lawn. He wants to be one of us. And that's OK as far as I'm concerned.
Lebanon may be the last place on Earth where the first man to walk on the moon is considered anything but a legend. That's the way he wants it. Even so, residents would like to thank him for raising his family in their hometown.
I don't know how, but we've talked about honoring him in some way, former mayor Mr. Hedges says. But we couldn't do that without his blessing.
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