WAPAKONETA — As the evening sun sank below the horizon and a bright, white moon rose in the eastern sky, people streamed onto the southwest lawn of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum to honor Neil Alden Armstrong who lived his life humbly, honorably and modestly by giving a wink at the moon.
Approximately 2,500 people gathered Wednesday night to pay tribute to the first man to walk on the moon and fulfill a family wish that “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.”
Wapakoneta resident Dudley Schuler, who knew Armstrong since high school, said he believes his lifelong friend would have been overwhelmed by the love and affection shown by the crowd gathered in front of the museum bearing his name.
“He would not have expected and he would have never thought he was deserving of this,” Schuler, who provided stories of Armstrong growing up in Wapakoneta and returning for his parade in 1969 during Wednesday evening’s special “Wink at the Moon” memorial service, said after the ceremony. “He was just a great, humble and modest person and stayed that way all the time. He grew up that way.”
During the ceremony, Schuler shared stories of Armstrong, himself and other friends making airplanes and flying them in the wind tunnel in Armstrong’s basement. He chuckled when he said they even lit a few on fire and threw them out his boyhood home’s window and watched them crash and burn. Armstrong lived at 601 W. Benton St. in Wapakoneta.
Schuler, who was in the eighth grade when Armstrong came to Wapakoneta and was a freshman, said the two became friends through Boy Scout Troop 14 at St. Paul United Church of Christ. Schuler, who moved to Wapakoneta a year earlier, said the friendship likely grew from the fact they “were both new kids on the block.”
Schuler told the crowd gathered in front of the museum shaped like the rising moon that the pair were part of a group of five boys who remained friends for life. Now only two remain with Armstrong’s death on Saturday afternoon — Schuler and Jack Stottlemeyer, who now lives in Florida.
In later years, Schuler said Armstrong and his siblings would often contact him with inquiries about people, places and events regarding Wapakoneta. He would provide the information, noting Armstrong liked to keep tabs on the people in the area.
He recalled Armstrong would often walk backwards when they walked around so he could see his friends.
He also talked about Armstrong working at Rhine and Brading’s Pharmacy, while he worked at a men’s clothing store. Schuler noted Armstrong and his friends’ personalities were shaped by the Great Depression.
“We learned good work ethics in those days, but we always found time to have fun and the swimming pool was our biggest asset and, of course, the Sweetland Soda Shop was our big hangout,” Schuler said. “I believed we lived through the worst of times and also the best of times.”
Shuttle astronaut Greg Johnson told the crowd how Armstrong served as an inspiration for him when he was a 7-year-old boy watching a black-and-white television when Armstrong stepped off the lunar module and walked on the moon.
He spoke on behalf of the astronaut corps including Chris Cassidy, an astronaut present who will be flying with the Russians to the space station early next year.
“We were very inspired by the work of Neil Armstrong and all of the great Ohio astronauts,” Johnson said. “When he stepped on the moon, I was in awe and I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. I would have never dreamed of being able to share some of my thoughts in his hometown here in Wapakoneta — Wapak.”
Armstrong visited Johnson when he was a young astronaut and talked to the group he was a member. He noted not once did Armstrong mention walking on the moon, he was “the pilot’s pilot.” He talked about landing the lunar module and “that is what he was really proud of.”
“He is my hero and I know he is your hero,” Johnson said.
Ramon Lugo III, the director of NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center, said the comments that Armstrong was humble, quiet and a private person “are absolutely true, but there is not a friendlier person you would ever meet in your life.”
He said the last time he saw and spoke to Armstrong was at the 50th anniversary of Glenn’s orbital flight. While he will forever remember that day, he will always remember Saturday, too.
“I think I will remember Saturday afternoon like a lot of us remember a lot of dates in history,” Lugo said, tears welling up in his eyes. “It was a very hard day for me.”
Armstrong Air & Space Museum Director Chris Burton read a statement from Dr. Earnest Krause, of NASA.
Armstrong Air & Space Museum Association President Thomas Finkelmeier read a statement from fellow NASA astronaut John Glenn, who wrote with Armstrong’s death “our nation lost a great hero, personally we lost a great friend. Neil will be forever remembered, by not only Americans, but all people around the world for the first person to make a footprint on some place other than Earth, stepping on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.”
Glenn noted Armstrong’s military service and work as a test pilot.
Don Schuler, who knew Armstrong since he was a boy, said he represented all the veterans from the world and from Wapakoneta and that residents of the city of 10,000 should be proud to be from Wapakoneta, the boyhood home of Armstrong, who served his country well as a Navy pilot during the Korean War.
Former Wapakoneta Mayor Don Wittwer recalled Stephen Armstrong’s worries about his son as he flew the X-15. He talked about Stephen Armstrong, who was a fellow Lion’s Club member with Wittwer, and a few other members of the group bet that Neil Armstrong would be named the commander of the Apollo 11 mission. They were correct.
Wittwer talked about Armstrong’s work in saving the Gemini 8 mission and other escapes from death by Armstrong, as well as the way the community came together to watch the landing and his walking on the moon.
“Yes, Neil is a hero that the entire world would get to know,” Wittwer said. “His accomplishments were many, but he remained a reserved, quiet man — a man who all people could relate. He will be missed by all who knew and who loved him.”
Finkelmeier ended the ceremony by saying Armstrong “may have believed that he lived but the small life of a man, but he has now made a giant leap into history. We will not soon see his equal.”
After the ceremony, Tom Finkelmeier said the event was organized to help people mourn and to inspire youngsters.
“We saw straight-away that while the world will mourn the passing of the first man on the moon, we needed a more personal expression of celebration and grief on losing our most famous native son,” Finkelmeier said.
“It is my hope, especially mine personally, that we can inspire young people today, to whom the Apollo program is merely ancient history, that there are still new frontiers to conquer and that science, technology, engineering and math are worthy and exciting professions and that they should strive for the moon.”