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Armstrong: A reluctant hero who always believed he was just doing his job

August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong remembered by locals in his hometown.

Neil Armstrong, “a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job” when he was the first man to “take one small for a man” and “one giant leap for mankind,” died Saturday following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.

Armstrong, who was born on a farm on Washington Pike to Viola and Stephen Armstrong and spent time growing up in St. Marys and Wapakoneta, was a “loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend,” his family members said in a news release. “He served his nation

proudly, as a Navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.

“He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits,” the news release continued.

Armstrong held the position of deputy associate administrator for Aeronautics, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. after walking on the moon In this position, he was responsible for the coordination and management of overall NASA research and technology work related to aeronautics.

From 1971 to 1979, he was a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati after leaving NASA. During the years 1982-1992, Armstrong was chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation, Inc., Charlottesville, Va.

The family said Armstrong cherished his privacy but he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world.

They said they hope people celebrate his life and he continues to be an inspiration to people around the world.

“While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves,” the news release from the family said. “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

The loss of the first man to land a lunar craft on the moon and the first man to walk on the moon saddened people locally and across the nation.

“He left a tremendous legacy for Wapakoneta and the area through his contributions to the nation’s space program and through the museum devoted to flight and space in his boyhood hometown,” Wapakoneta Mayor Rodney Metz said. “It is a sad day for Wapakoneta, for Ohio and for the nation and the world and we will all miss him. We need to remember what he did for this community and what he did for the people throughout the world.”

Metz said the NASA program, of which Armstrong was a part of for many years, was instrumental in many of the contributions to today’s society from battery technology to simple things like TANG.

Former Wapakoneta Mayor Don Wittwer, who as Wapakoneta Area Chamber of Commerce president helped organize the parade and ceremony welcoming Armstrong to Wapakoneta after the historic landing on the moon, said he got to know Viola and Stephen Armstrong well before he ever talked to Neil Armstrong.

Neil’s mother, the former Viola Louise Engel, grew up in the Wapakoneta area and attended Cleardale School on Washington Pike before switching to and graduating from Blume High School. Armstrong’s father grew up in St. Marys and graduated from Memorial High School. His parents met through a church function and married in a small service at her mother’s and stepfather’s home on Oct. 8, 1929.

Armstrong was born to the couple on Aug. 5, 1930, at her parent’s home on Washington Pike. His father was working in Lisbon, Ohio, and was not present at the time. The couple had recently purchased a home in St. Marys.

The couple’s last move was to Wapakoneta in 1944 after moving 20 times in 15 years after Neil Armstrong’s birth. His father worked as an auditor for the Ohio state government.

Wittwer recalled he talked with Armstrong several times during the planning of the parade held on Sept. 6, 1969 — a hot and sunny day in the 90s.

“It was quite an event for the community and I still live it today as much as I did back then,” said Wittwer, noting his grandson has taken photographs and film footage of that day and converted them to DVD. “What can you say about Neil’s accomplishments, they are fantastic and they were things I couldn’t even imagine even when they were going on.”

Wittwer spoke with Armstrong several times during the years after the moon landing.

“Neil was a very focused individual and very educated, and he was a pioneer in space,” Wittwer told the Wapakoneta Daily News. “I don’t know what you can really say about a man like him and do him justice. I had a lot of respect for him. He was one who didn’t seek recognition for his accomplishments, but he was dedicated and very committed to the program.”

Armstrong’s career with NASA began 1962 after he attended school at Purdue University, served in the U.S. Navy flying 78 missions in Korea and worked at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland and Edwards Air Force Base in California.

During his high school years, he worked for Richard Brading at Brading’s Pharmacy in Wapakoneta and became friends with Charles Brading Jr. Armstrong used the money he earned to take flying lessons from three World War II veterans at an airfield north of Wapakoneta.

“He was a good friend and we will certainly miss him,” Brading said.

Brading, who was instrumental in organizing and planning his homecoming visit in 1969, also was instrumental in Armstrong’s visit to the region in 1994 at Air Show ’94 at the Neil Armstrong Airport near New Knoxville. He last saw his friend approximately one year ago in Dayton.

“He made Wapakoneta just so very proud of him,” his wife, Sandy Brading, said. “We are all so sorry and we send our sympathies to his family.

“It was such a shock because all the articles said he was doing so well so it really was a shock when we heard the news yesterday (Saturday),” she said during a telephone interview Sunday evening.

Armstrong underwent surgery on Aug. 7 to relieve some blocked coronary arteries and was responding well to the surgery and looked to make a full recovery, according to published accounts.

From the parade in Wapakoneta in 1969 which included Bob Hope, Ed McMahon and Dr. Albert Sabin as well as Gov. James Rhodes and the Purdue Marching Band, Sandy Brading said the couple’s friend proved a testament to his roots.

“He was just a very, very nice polite man with a quick smile,” Sandy Brading said. “He had a sense of humor that people didn’t see. He was extremely kind and truly humble especially regarding his accomplishments.

“To him, he was doing his job and how wonderful it was that your job could involve and center on something you loved so much,” she said. “I don’t think he ever felt like a hero or wanted to be thought of in that way — but to all of us he certainly was.”

Wapakoneta native John Zwez, who would become the director of the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum from the time it opened on July 20, 1972, with pomp and circumstance including Patrician Nixon, the eldest daughter of then President Richard Nixon, until the middle of the 2000s, met Armstrong several times through the years.

“Neil put this community on the map and we have a museum in honor of him,” Zwez said about Armstrong’s contribution to Wapakoneta. “Through his whole career, he maintained that old German ethic of hard work and with hard work it will take you wherever you want to go and that has been his theme, from my perspective, from the time he was young all the way up through walking on the moon until afterwards.

“His work ethic was one of those things that showed if you wanted to, no matter if you were born in a small little town or out on a farm, you could go to the moon,” he said, “and he proved that.”

Zwez, who took members of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum to meet him in May 2011 to discuss the future of the museum, said Armstrong is not the way the public perceives him as a recluse and shunning the spotlight — but Zwez said Armstrong wants to be evaluated on the work and contributions he is making today.

“He also had a sharp wit about him, he is extremely intelligent and you can have a one-on-one conversation quite comfortably with him and I don’t think the general public saw that,” Zwez said. “He believed there was a job to do and he did it.

“In talking to him and everything I’ve read, it was the engineering part and the flying that appealed to him and he loved, and going to the moon was the ultimate engineering feat,” he said. “That is where he came from all along was the sole idea of engineering and working with the most high-tech equipment which he did.”

Zwez said he visited the museum approximately five times, the last time was in 2003.

Current Armstrong Air and Space Museum Director Chris Burton said the death of Armstrong means the same to the museum and staff as it does to others in the United States.

“What his death means for the museum in the immediate future as it does for everyone, for the space exploration community and the nation as a whole, is we have lost this great engineer, astronaut, pilot and this person who has been a leader for 50 years,” Burton said. “As far as the museum’s future endeavors, I had hoped to have Mr. Armstrong involved in some of our activities going forward whether as a guest speaker or a participant in moon festivals and that no longer is a possibility.

“This just demonstrates that you never know how long someone will be available to be with us,” he said.

The rest of the world also mourned the passing of the first man to walk on the moon and lunar module pilot including fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

“I am very saddened to learn of the passing of Neil Armstrong today. Neil and I trained together as technical partners but were also good friends who will always be connected through our participation in the Apollo 11 mission,” Aldrin said in a statement released through NASA. “Whenever I look at the moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone. Virtually the entire world took that memorable journey with us.

“I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew,” he said. “My friend Neil took the small step but giant leap that changed the world and will forever be remembered as a landmark moment in human history. I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing. Regrettably, this is not to be. Neil will most certainly be there with us in spirit.”

Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said he was privileged to know Armstrong and will miss his expertise on technical issues and space exploration.

“Neil Armstrong was a true American hero, and one of the nicest gentlemen around,” Cabana said. “He was the epitome of what an engineering test pilot should be, and a role model for everyone who aspired to be an astronaut.”

Two members of Congress expressed their grief at Armstrong’s passing.

“A true hero has returned to the Heavens to which he once flew,” U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner said in a released statement. “Neil Armstrong blazed trails not just for America, but for all of mankind. He inspired generations of boys and girls worldwide not just through his monumental feat, but with the humility and grace with which he carried himself to the end. Ohio has lost one of her proudest sons. Humanity has gained a legend.”

“Neil Armstrong was a true American hero, both because of his extraordinary service to his country and the honorable life he led,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said. “He was a groundbreaking naval aviator and the world’s most famous astronaut, but it was his humble and gracious response to the torrent of attention that followed his accomplishments that may have set him apart most.”

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama said in a released statement to the media they were saddened by the passing of Armstrong.

“Neil was among the greatest of American heroes — not just of his time, but of all time,” Obama said. “When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable — that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said as long as there are history books that Armstrong would be included and remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond this one.

“Besides being one of America’s greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all,” Bolden said. “When President Kennedy challenged the nation to send a human to the moon, Neil Armstrong accepted without reservation.

“As we enter this next era of space exploration, we do so standing on the shoulders of Neil Armstrong,” he said. “We mourn the passing of a friend, fellow astronaut and true American hero.”

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