Sunday, July 18, 1999
Neil Armstrong, Reluctant Hero
The first man on the moon shuns interviews and avoids the spotlight, preferring the quiet - almost anonymous life hje has created in Southwest Ohio
BY JOHN JOHNSTON, SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, RICHELLE THOMPSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
With one small step on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took his place among the greatest explorers in history. The first man to set foot on the moon could have chosen to live in the heroic afterglow of that stunning achievement. Instead the Wapakoneta, Ohio, native retreated from the spotlight, settled in Southwest Ohio, and carved out a new life.
Neil Armstrong, here on the morning of his historic launch, shies away from the limelight.
(AP file photo)
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Now 68, he has long been reluctant to discuss his moon mission. As the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11 approached, he declined interview requests, including the Enquirer's. His one concession was a hastily arranged press conference Friday at Kennedy Space Center.
In an America that hungers for heroes, he is the genuine article many times over: a brave jet fighter pilot who narrowly escaped death on one of his 78 combat mission in Korea; a daring test pilot who soared in the X-15, an experimental rocket plane; and the Apollo 11 commander who deftly guided the lunar module Eagle past boulders and craters before landing on the moon with only 20 seconds of fuel to spare.
His reticence has led some people to inaccurately label him as reclusive. In fact, Mr. Armstrong has actively participated in the southwestern Ohio community. But he has done so on his own terms, without fanfare.
Born: Aug. 5, 1930, Wapakoneta, Ohio. |
Family: Wife, Carol Knight. Has two grown sons from a previous marriage.
Home: Indian Hill. Also owns property near Lebanon.
Education: Bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering, Purdue University, 1955; master's in aerospace engineering, University of Southern California, 1970.
Military: U.S. Navy aviator, 1950-52. Served in Korean War; flew 78 combat missions.
Space career: Named an astronaut in 1962. Command pilot of Gemini 8, March 16, 1966; commander of Apollo 11, first manned mission to land on the moon, July 16-24, 1969; deputy associate administrator for aeronautics, 1970-71.
Teaching: Professor of aeronautical engineering, University of Cincinnati, 1971-79.
Business: He pursues various business interests and is chairman of CTA Inc. in Lebanon.
He has attempted to blend in, whether farming on his Warren County property serving on various community and corporate boards, or teaching at the University of Cincinnati as a professor of aerospace engineering from 1971-79.
He also made time for family, accompanying his two boys to Boy Scout meetings, and rooting them on at football games. He and his first wife, Janet, divorced five years ago. He has remarried, and today he and his wife, Carol, live in Indian Hill.
Friends and colleagues offer these glimpses of the personality of the first man to step onto another world.
He abandoned the fame to become "common' man
Jim Rogers president and CEO of Cinergy Corp., considers Mr. Armstrong, a Cinergy board member, both business associate and friend. They met in 1994 with the merger of PSI and CG&E.
He also considers Mr. Armstrong a hero and not just because he was the first person on the moon.
He stepped out and did a truly courageous thing, which has inspired all people in this century. And then he returned to sort of everyday life and lived his life in a very humble way, in a very quiet way. Many people in the astronaut program have tried to exploit their role for their own personal gain, and he's a man who did what he had to do and came back and lived life as an ordinary man.
Roger Launius is NASA chief historian in Washington D.C., and has met Neil Armstrong several times over the years. NASA has tried to respect Mr. Armstrong's interest in privacy, he said.
Some people would love to see him be more outspoken. But he's been a private citizen since 1971 when he left the agency.
Howard Benedict was senior aerospace writer for the Associated Press for 31 years and is now executive director of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation in Titusville, Fla.
After he went to the moon, he really disliked all the attention that was on him, and the way NASA dragged him and the crew around the world. He always said they never knew what country they were in because they were traveling to two, three or four a day. It just wore them out. He always wanted to be a professor of aerospace engineering, and as soon as he got out of NASA, that's where he went.
Ron Huston, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC, was Neil Armstrong's boss at UC to the extent that anybody was his boss. Mr. Huston was director of the Institute for Applied Interdisciplinary Research. Mr. Armstrong was associate director.
Mr. Armstrong was different than the many former astronauts who went on to high-level NASA jobs, or used their fame to launch political or business careers, Mr. Huston said.
He wasn't the paper-pushing type. He liked engineering. But he really liked flying airplanes. He didn't give interviews, but he wasn't a strange person or hard to talk to. He just didn't like being a novelty.
Lawrence Rogers lives across the street from Mr. Armstrong's Indian Hill home. He said it wasn't easy for Mr. Armstrong to evade the media when he came to town.
At their first meeting, more than 20 years ago, Mr. Armstrong had just begun teaching at the University of Cincinnati. Mr. Rogers was then president of Taft Broadcasting Co.
The university provost called a meeting with the major news media representatives in town. With Mr. Armstrong sitting at the table during the lunch at the Queen City Club, the provost asked the journalists to back off.
They were having a very difficult time with Mr. Armstrong because the media wouldn't leave him alone.
Mr. Armstrong was receiving hundreds of pieces of mail, almost impossible to handle because he did not have a secretary.
Mr. Rogers recalled the provost saying: Would you kindly lay off him and never mention his name again. Mr. Rogers said he spoke up.
This is the most ridiculous thing I've heard in my entire life. Here's a man whose exploits rival those of Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. He's the most famous man in the world today ... and you're telling us to clam up and pretend he doesn't exist? Go back to the university and buy him a secretary or two secretaries.
Afterward, Mr. Armstrong approached him.
Neil walked up and grabbed me by the elbow and said, "Thanks.' That's how we met. I guess he thought he ought to have secretarial help, too.
John Zwez has become one of the world's leading experts on the man, as curator of the Neil Armstrong Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Neil Armstrong has kept a low profile even when stopping at his hometown's museum. He has visited it about five times since it opened on July 20, 1972. Sometimes he came in for special occasions; other times, he just dropped in.
On one visit, Mr. Zwez walked with Mr. Armstrong around the museum. Of about 15 or 20 visitors, only one recognized him.
We saw this couple arguing by my office, but I couldn't tell what they were arguing about. We went on into my office. A few seconds later, I saw this cane, the man had a cane, and he kind of tapped on the door with his cane. He asked, "Are you Neil Armstrong?' Neil said yes. The man left and I heard him say, "See, I told you that was Neil Armstrong.'
The man didn't ask for an autograph or picture.
Neil just smiled.
Paul Herdman is chairman of 1st National Bank in Lebanon and was a Warren County judge for 30 years. As a banker and attorney, Mr. Herdman invested in real estate with Mr. Armstrong for about 20 years. He described how Mr. Armstrong blended into the crowd at 4-H auctions at the Warren County Fair.
He used to go bid on the cattle. He'd stand in the back. I don't think anybody knew him. He used to try to run the price up on me on his son's own cattle. I don't think anyone knew it ...
He was an old farmer like everyone else, and he'd come to the fair like a farmer.
Larry Crisenberry is a Warren County commissioner who got to know Neil Armstrong at Boy Scout meetings with their sons in the 1970s.
When someone would approach him and ask about his historic flight, Mr. Armstrong would say, I'd rather not talk about this. For six to seven years of Scout meetings, Mr. Armstrong stuck to one topic in conversations his boys and their merit badges.
He would always go off and be in a corner. He didn't want the public eye at all. If you didn't know him, you didn't know he was there.
Jim VanDeGrift is a Turtlecreek Township trustee and neighbor of the Armstrongs in Warren County. He met Mr. Armstrong more than 20 years ago when their children were in school at the same time. He said the people of Warren County welcomed Mr. Armstrong as one of their own.
He just wanted to be a citizen in the community and take his place, and that's what we all accepted him as.
Mr. Armstrong was very supportive of his children and regularly attended the high school football games.
Lawrence Rogers said he remembers one time when Mr. Armstrong did talk about his space excursions. He remembers him making time for a small boy following a dove shoot on a plantation in Florida last October. The plantation manager's son, age 5 or 6, approached Mr. Armstrong. The little boy was dressed in fatigues and asked in awe about space.
He was explaining to the little boy about the moon's orbit around the Earth. ... We were all standing with our mouths open, here's Neil giving a demonstration in astrophysics to a little 5-year-old boy.
The boy was asking him what the Earth looked like (from space) and whether he was standing upside down, things only a 5-year-old could think of.
Ron Holtrey lives on Ohio 123 in Warren County a few doors down from the Armstrong farm. He's known Mr. Armstrong for more than 20 years, starting when he helped coach the Lebanon High School football team. For 10 years, he and Mr. Armstrong and their wives were in a Friday golfing group.
He said Mr. Armstrong is just a common and ordinary kind of guy who mows his own grass.
They last saw each other two weeks ago at a wedding. Mr. Armstrong told Mr. Holtrey that he still drives from his Indian Hill home two or three days a week up to the remodeled farm house near Lebanon.
He spends a couple days a week up there mowing and trimming.
His work is precise, controlled, focused
William J. Keating, a former U.S. congressman and Enquirer publisher, has known Mr. Armstrong for nearly three decades and has been impressed by his ability to zero in on the task before him.
Neil is absolutely focused. Whatever he does, his concentration is complete. I can remember playing with him in a PGA pro-golf tournament in Honolulu. He was about to hit a golf ball, and this big explosion went off that we could hear. It didn't even faze him. He didn't even seem to hear it. He hit the shot and hit it well.
Mr. Armstrong's technical knowledge also impressed Mr. Keating.
I was publisher of the Enquirer, and we had on the front page of the paper a diagram we had used from AP. We printed it as we received it, and it showed something going around the Earth. I happened to run into him later that morning. He said, "Bill, that diagram was wrong.' And I said, "Show me.' He took out paper and a pencil and showed me how it was different and how it was wrong. I got ahold of my friends at the AP and told them what he said. I got a call a couple hours later, and they said, "Yeah, we were wrong, and he was right.'
Rodger Koppa helped teach astronauts to walk in lunar conditions. An associate professor of engineering at Texas A&M University, College Station, and a former General Electric Co. engineer, remembers Mr. Armstrong as an astronaut. Neil was all business. He had infinite patience. We had all kinds of delays in the training, and we'd tell the other astronauts to sit down, take off the suits for a while, but Neil would stand there in his suit and say, "When you are ready, let's get it done.' He was never cold about it. Just contained and controlled, precise about everything.
Rocco Petrone was launch director for Apollo 11. He's now 73, retired, and living in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.
When I was with him, he was all business. He never went out of his way to be voluble. ... This was a quiet man who was driven by the job he was doing.
The late Robert Kroll was a former UC professor of aerospace engineering, who once sat in on an Amstrong class. In a 1994 interview, he remembered the test pilot discussing an X-15 experience. The things he told us were fascinating, but he told them in a simple, matter-of-fact manner. Something went wrong during one of his flights, and it turned into a Mach 2 free fall from 30,000 feet. He told it like he was walking down to the post office.
Dr. Henry Heimlich is best known for developing the Heimlich maneuver to save choking victims in 1974. Shortly after Mr. Armstrong arrived at UC, Dr. Heimlich, who was then director of surgery for Jewish Hospital, began working with him on a miniature heart-lung machine, before heart transplants were done.
He immediately grasped the concept and joined me. Neil obtained the last two existing very small pumps that were used to circulate fluid in the space suits, in order to maintain a constant temperature. We ran tests on those pumps. ...
We worked together for about six years, and had wonderful meetings every week in my laboratory, stimulating and fun. We never got to complete the heart-lung apparatus, but we learned a great deal. One of the products resulting from our studies is the Micro Trach, a very tiny tube that is inserted in the trachea, or windpipe, to deliver oxygen on a permanent basis. This is widely used throughout this country and other countries.
About the time that Mr. Armstrong left UC, Dr. Heimlich left Jewish Hospital and their collaboration ended. They did not, Dr. Heimlich says, ever discuss Mr. Armstrong's exploits in space except relative to the (heart-lung) pump. I don't think it would have had a purpose in our gathering.
Jim Rogers of Cinergy Corp. said he played 18 holes of golf with Mr. Armstrong on the day of the 25th anniversary of the moon landing.
During the course of the entire day, Neil never mentioned that it was the 25th anniversary of him walking on the moon. In this age when everybody wants 15 minutes of fame, and everybody is trying to exploit their deeds and blow them out of proportion, he is just the opposite. He underplays it. He's almost like a John Wayne character. An Old West, aw shucks, kind of guy.
He won't take credit for community work
Jack Flaherty is president of Senour-Flaherty Insurance Agency, which has offices in Mason and Lebanon. He met Mr. Armstrong 24 years ago at a meeting to build what would become the Ralph Stolle Countryside YMCA in Lebanon. About 10 people met once a week for several years, brainstorming plans for the center.
There were 10 or eight of us with very strong personalities, and we would all have different ideas, and he had the ability to listen to everybody and synopsize the idea and say, "How does this sound,' and put it all together.
The current expansion under way on the YMCA will push its size to 200,000 square feet, the largest YMCA in the country without a residence, Mr. Flaherty said. All of Mr. Armstrong's work on it was voluntary.
Neil gave thousands of hours to the Countryside YMCA and would take absolutely no credit.
DeVere Burt was executive director of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History when Mr. Armstrong agreed to serve as museum board chairman in the early 1980s.
He did so much more than lend his name to it. He was there at a very critical time, a time when the organization was looking at its future at the Gilbert Avenue site and came to the conclusion that its future was somewhere else.
Although Mr. Armstrong was not board chairman when the decision was made to move the museum to Union Terminal, he helped lay the foundation for such a move.
Neil probably could have said, "No, this is not what I agreed to do.' Instead, he helped me devise the feasibility studies that looked at the long-range (goals) for the institution.
He's a very enthusiastic person. Well-prepared. Board meetings were carefully orchestrated. His preparation was absolutely as diligent as any chairman I've worked with, probably more diligent than all of them. He wanted the facts, he wanted our positions clear. He wanted to anticipate the questions and have the answers. He was very, very thorough, very meticulous.
George Neargarder of St. Marys is president of the Auglaize County Historical Society.
Three years ago, we needed money to restore a copper lady that once sat atop the old courthouse. The project cost more money than we had $32,000. Neil Armstrong agreed to sign 250 prints of the courthouse, which we sold for $150 each. His only stipulation was that they be sold in the county; otherwise, the dealers would have bought all of them.
Epilogue: "I just happened to be there'
Jim Rogers met with Cinergy's board again Wednesday. Mr. Armstrong was there.
At the start, I tried to make a joke that soon we were going to have an important day coming. I said, July 20 is the date of my grandson's birthday, and Neil, it must be an important day for you too. I laughed and he laughed.
Then I said what an honor it was for me and every member of the board to serve with him. In his own wonderful way, he just smiled.
He sort of said something like: "I just happened to be there.' That says it all.
Enquirer reporters Mark Curnutte and Tim Bonfield contributed to this report.
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