WAPAKONETA — When NASA gives advice, it’s a good idea to take it. With that said, Wapakoneta Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jackie Martell is now expecting up to 50,000 people to come to Wapakoneta on Friday for a live broadcast with an astronaut.
No matter how many people come, Wapakoneta is ready for something big, and they’re probably going to get it. As the festivities ramp up, the Summer Moon Festival and the related celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing could be the summer’s biggest regional event that has the potential to set up the small city for increased economic prosperity.
And Neil Armstrong is at the center of it.
Seven years after his death, Armstrong has become more than just a celebrity from the region. Today, his legacy is practically a way of life.
Neil Armstrong: The Man
Back in 1962, a batch of celebrities were presented with Stephen and Viola Armstrong, two small town Ohioans, recently flown into the studio of “I’ve Got a Secret.” The show’s premise was simple — a panel had a few minutes to guess a secret from contestants.
The questions asked of Stephen and Viola Armstrong mostly missed the mark, and some contestants joked around, gaining a laugh from the audience. Meanwhile, Viola held a smile as host Harry Moore helped her maneuver around a few answers.
Admittedly, the five-minute clip itself isn’t particularly entertaining, but it well documents Viola’s pride in her son, Neil.
Earlier that day, the couple had learned about their son’s latest accomplishment, his admittance into NASA’s astronaut program, and they got a chance to announce it to millions on national television after one of the celebrities correctly guessed their “secret.”
Host Harry Moore followed up with a question: “Now, how would you feel, Mrs. Armstrong, if it turned out — of course nobody knows — but if it turns out that your son is the first man to land on the moon? What, how do, how would you feel?”
“Well, guess I’d just say God bless him, and I wish him the best of all good luck,” Viola said.
Just 32 years earlier, Neil Armstrong was born to Viola and Stephen in Wapakoneta, the eldest of three kids.
He spent his first few years in Wapakoneta but not his entire childhood. Due to his father’s career as a state auditor, the Armstrongs moved throughout Ohio, but he was back in Wapakoneta by 1944 when the family moved back to Wapakoneta for good.
As for Armstrong, he spent another three years in Wapakoneta before being accepted into Purdue University under a government program that would send him to flight training school.
His last major public appearance in Wapakoneta came after his historic landing on the moon during a hometown welcoming parade celebrating his accomplishment. Today, that moment has been memorialized with a downtown statue of Armstrong waving to the crowd.
Armstrong himself, however, was not a fan of the fame that he had gained from his first step on the moon. Living just outside of Cincinnati in his final years, he eventually stopped signing autographs after finding people were selling them on eBay for thousands of dollars. In one bizarre case, Armstrong found that his personal barber had sold his hair to a collector. One lawsuit later, the $3,000 gained from the transaction had been moved to a nonprofit chosen by Armstrong.
Such legal maneuverings on his image extended even to his hometown. When the Armstrong Air and Space Museum worked to honor his legacy, he acted to make sure people knew that he wasn’t making a dime from the educational venture.
“He worked out fame in a way that he didn’t let it disrupt his life,” Wapakoneta Area Economic Development Council Executive Director Greg Myers said.
Myers said he didn’t know Armstrong personally all that well, but he had a few personal anecdotes. Once during a historical air show, Armstrong initially denied the invite and the ceremony that went with his appearance, instead opting for a more minor role as a show participant.
“He never wanted an event to be about him, but he showed up and made the day for people,” Myers said.
In another tale, during a networking event, a woman asked him nonchalantly if he had done any traveling without knowing who he was. Armstrong never mentioned the moon in the conversation.
“There are few people in the history of the world who will be remembered and honored forever. And Armstrong is one of them,” Myers said.
Neil Armstrong: The Symbol
Rinda Beach first heard of Neil Armstrong when she was 10 years old, watching the historic broadcast of the moon landing in 1969.
“I was happy I got to stay up past midnight to watch it,” Beach said. “I was more impressed that Bob Hope came to town.”
She admitted the moon never interested her much, but her understanding of Armstrong shifted as she got older. Today, she’s a retired second-grade teacher who “spent months with Neil” writing a short book detailing how he crafted a wind tunnel when he was 16 years old for a science fair project, which she has since self-published.
“I thought it was interesting that he built it when he was 16. It’s not an average thing that I would do. He’s an unusual person, and it sat in my brain for a whole year,” Beach said. “When they moved him to the third grade, (his teacher) couldn’t keep him busy enough.”
For Beach, Armstrong’s story shows his curiosity, thirst for knowledge and his willingness to put in the work to accomplish what he wanted.
“He is a symbol of what a person can accomplish coming from a small town,” Martell said. “They can relate with what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it. He’s also a symbol of a culture working together and that it always takes more than yourself to accomplish anything.”
Neil Armstrong: The Brand
When Myers has clients come into town to scope out potential industrial sites, he almost always makes a trip to the Armstrong Air and Space Museum.
“It’s always impressive to find for them that we have a world class air and space museum. It’s an interesting and unexpected surprise,” Myers said.
And it’s small touches like those that have helped Myers land economic development projects. For residents looking in, the Armstrong name sticks, and the city knows it.
Roughly three years ago, Wapakoneta’s City Council recognized “First on the Moon” as the city’s tagline. The Ohio Department of Transportation made it highway official by recently adding the words to the city’s sign on Interstate 75.
For Myers, adopting the tag line was a no-brainer. The city had briefly considered playing up its name due to its roots as a Shawnee tribe word, Myers said, but the city’s relation to Armstrong eventually won out.
“He will be the Christopher Columbus of the 20th century, and that’s pretty special,” Myers said. “It doesn’t get much better than Neil Armstrong.”
Myers even uses the relation to brag about the area’s work ethic. He can trot out Armstrong’s name to show that the region produces smart workers willing to go that extra mile.
For now, those in Wapakoneta are making the final preparations to fulfill the festival’s expectations and become a part of Armstrong’s legacy.
“(Wapakoneta residents) went to school with him. They saw him at church and in Boy Scouts, and he’d gone to the moon,” Myers said. “(His legacy) is an asset to us because it speaks to the quality of life. He’s a pretty admirable guy, and we take great pride he grew up here.”
“I think there’s a prestige to have someone of that caliber to come from the community,” Donna Grube, Greater Grand Lake Visitors Bureau’s executive director said. “It’s the kind of place where people grow up and follow their dream.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.