Classmates recall more than a famous astronaut
At a 65th reunion just a month ago, classmates of Neil Armstrong say he took extra time talking to each of them individually.
Members of the 1947 Blume High School class attending the reunion each were left with the impression that made upon them when they spoke of his death Saturday afternoon.
“I thought that was really nice,” Dr. Dorothy Woolley, a professor at the University of California-Davis, said.
She said she was glad to have had that time to visit with Armstrong at the reunion.
Sunday afternoon at her home in Davis, Calif., Woolley looked at pictures from the most recent reunion and others in years past, remembering with America a hero, but for her also — a classmate and friend.
Woolley described Armstrong, not just as the astronaut the world remembers, but as a teenage boy who was friendly, smart and a good student.
“He was outgoing and had a big smile,” Woolley said. “That’s what I remember.”
At the classes reunion Woolley said Armstrong pointed out the success of his female classmates, and teased them for being smarter than him because of their rank on a state scholarship test, but Woolley, one of the two girls in the class who scored better than Armstrong on that test, said just making the list out of everyone in the state was a big deal, and he was on that list, too.
“Guys are not as famous for being studious in high school, they do it
later,” Woolley said. “He teased us about being smart, but so was he.”
A clarinet player in the school’s marching band, Woolley said she also remembers vividly how Armstrong looked holding the large horn he played.
“He marched proudly with it over his right shoulder swaying back and forth,” Woolley said. “He had fun and played that loud, dominant instrument well.”
Although Armstrong wanted to remain that regular guy to his classmates, they never forgot the accomplishments he experienced throughout his life.
This last reunion, they applauded Armstrong when he walked into the banquet hall.
“No one suspected he had a problem, but he must have known,” Woolley said of Armstrong’s health, for which he would undergo heart surgery just days later, complications from which were being blamed for his death.
A fellow inductee in the Wapakoneta High School Hall of Fame, Woolley said she was upset when she heard from her son that Armstrong had died. Hours after learning the news, Woolley was watching a TV special aired on the man, who had marched alongside her in band and sat next to her in class.
After receiving an e-mail from a former student now in Bahrain, Woolley said the whole world knows about Armstrong‘s death.
“From the instant he landed and stepped out onto the moon, the whole world knew of him,” Woolley said. “The whole world was watching and he was history.”
Known for his phrase, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Woolley said she liked the way Armstrong said it and always believed that he had said one small step for “a” man, something he had insisted but that couldn’t be heard in the version that was broadcast to the world.
Woolley said she watched the July 20, 1969, landing on TV from her home in California and ran into the street to celebrate.
Having known Armstrong and come from his hometown only added to her excitement, she said.
“It was very, very, very special,” Woolley said. “I was jumping for joy.”
Reading newspaper accounts of Armstrong’s life, Woolley was reminded again that this one moment in Armstrong’s life and career wasn’t an isolated incident.
“He had an incredible background with all that he accomplished,” she said.
Marveling at some of the instances and experiences she read about, Woolley said she bet he had some pretty close calls, but he always kept his wits about him.
He was just 16 when he got his pilot’s license, something he accomplished before he got his license to drive a car, but he was also doing studies on flying and planes, Woolley remembers as a trait that stood out about him.
“Who would’ve guessed what he would go on to do,” Woolley said. “At the time we were in school, it wasn’t possible. We didn’t know enough to predict it.”
In recent years at class reunions, Woolley said Armstrong remained the same man she had known as a boy — always smiling, calm and friendly.
“He was never zooming around getting excited about things,” Woolley said.
She said he was the kind of guy who accomplished great things, but even he mocked himself as a “white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer.”
“He was a special kind of person, very, very special,” Woolley said. “You wouldn’t have guessed it just talking to him, but that made him even more special.”
Janis Briem said her former classmate was always very intelligent, but also quieter than most guys that age.
Charged with pinning ribbons on attendees at this year’s class reunion, Briem said Armstrong seemed extra friendly and really enjoyed himself as he made time to talk to everyone.
“He didn’t like to talk about himself, he just liked to be around everybody,” Briem said. “He never had an enemy.”
Having lost other members of her graduating class, Briem said hearing of Armstrong’s death made her feel bad. As a class they had always been relatively close through the years.
“It’s hard to believe,” Briem said. “I think everybody thought he’d really grow up to do something and I think he did. If he started something he finished it. It was always that way.”
Briem still remembers watching Armstrong as he rode his bike by her house on Wapak-Cridersville Road, to get to his flying lessons and it gave extra special meaning to the moon landing when Briem watched it on her TV at home in Wapakoneta.
Classmate Doris Weber remembers Armstrong as quiet when he first came to the school midway through his freshman year.
“I sat across from him in homeroom and used to ask for his help with math problems,” said Weber, who noted that without his help, she struggled with the problems so much she would stay home sick from school not to have to do them.
When Armstrong was learning to fly at Port Koneta, the same place Weber’s husband, Ken, learned to fly, she said they never even thought that one day he might be on the moon, but she believes the Lord picked him for that special role in history.
“He just loved to fly,” Weber said.
She said that first plane Armstrong and Ken flew, “The Champ,” as it was affectionately known, hangs in the Armstrong Air and Space Museum.
Although it’s another business now, the airport’s hangars remain. The landing strip was always grass, making for a softer landing, Weber said.
She said while Armstrong made it back for most of their later class reunions, starting with the 60th, they planned them for a date that worked into his busy schedule so he could attend.
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He had called just a couple weeks before this last reunion and said how much he was looking forward to it.
Having just had cataract surgery, it was the first time Weber has seen him without glasses and as they reminisced about him riding his bike the several miles out to the airport to fly, Armstrong said he didn’t think he could do that anymore.
“He was talking to everybody and extra friendly,” Weber said. “Maybe he did know about his heart. He never said anything, but it all points that way.”
Broken up since another member of the Blume High School Class of 1947 called Saturday afternoon to tell Weber about Armstrong’s death, Weber said she just couldn’t believe it.
She is planning to fly a special flag and hang a sign in her front yard commemorating Armstrong’s legacy.
“I’m going to leave it there quite a while in honor of him,” Weber said.
She said they talked of other things, but never about his trip to the moon.
“It has been said that it wasn’t just him, but a whole team that landed on the moon,” Weber said. “He didn’t want the limelight. They all worked together and without all of them, he wouldn’t have been able to do it I think is what he believed. He liked everyone in Wapakoneta, but didn’t want to take credit by himself.”
A humble man, Weber said Armstrong liked to be by himself and was always willing to help any way he could.
“At the homecoming after he first walked on the moon, our class formed a reception line,” Weber said. “I was so excited and asked if her remembered me. He gave me a kiss on the cheek, and said, ‘Punky (which was her nickname in high school), I’d never forget you.’”
Weber won’t ever forget watching the moon landing on TV or that the guy sitting beside her in study hall who helped her with those tough word problems was the first person to walk on the moon.
Reunion conversations may not have been about the moon or space travel, but Weber said they were always fun reminiscings of school days gone by.
“We always looked forward to that,” Weber said.
“Next year, we will have to add him to the list of classmates who have passed on,” said Weber, who read the list of deceased classmates during a special candlelight ceremony at the reunion this year held in late July. “It just won’t be the same.”