WAPAKONETA — Hundreds gathered outside the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta on a cool, clear Wednesday evening to celebrate the late astronaut Neil Armstrong’s life at a memorial service, the moon glowing brightly in the sky.
A missing-man flight and color guard salute preceded the ceremony.
The moon-shaped dome of the museum provided a backdrop for the lectern where people spoke about the first man on the moon and their memories of him. Among those were NASA astronaut Greg Johnson, NASA Glenn Research Center Director Ramon Lugo III, and personal friends of Armstrong, calling him friendly, humble and “the pilot’s pilot.”
“I remember when I was 7 years old, back in 1969,” Johnson said. “And I watched on a black-and-white TV as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. I was in awe. And at that point, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut.”
When Johnson had the opportunity to meet him years later, he said they spoke for 45 minutes and not once mentioned the moon landing.
“He flew wonderful, challenging aircraft all through his career, and that was what he was really proud about. And he was extremely humble about his experiences being the guy. It was all about teamwork. It was about those 10,000 people that were behind him as he made a very important step for mankind,” he said.
Lugo only met Armstrong for the first time a few years ago, but got choked up speaking about the man that inspired him for decades.
“I think I will remember Saturday afternoon like a lot of us will remember a lot of dates in history. And so it was a very hard day for me,” he said, his voice beginning to crack.
Many visitors, of course, were no strangers to Armstrong, either. They packed lawn chairs into the grass to honor and respect the beloved Ohioan.
“It feels to me like I lost a good friend, an old friend,” said Helen Brown, of Wapakoneta.
Her daughter Kay Dorner, of Wapakoneta, sat beside her. Years ago, when Brown worked at the now defunct Brown’s Restaurant and she helped out with the business, Dorner met Armstrong briefly.
“He came in to eat with his family, and I was at the cash register,” she recalled.
She said once he left, her mom asked her to go to the parking lot to get his autograph. The year was 1976; she remembered because he signed a bicentennial place mat from that year.
Frank Oen, of Cridersville, said his father and Armstrong were friends from childhood to adulthood.
“Whenever Neil was in town, he’d always call my dad,” he said.
Oen met Armstrong twice and described him as “a really nice guy.”
And although Dennis Walther had never met the man, he held high regard for him, especially back in 1969.
“I was just about to go into the service,” said Walther, of Wapakoneta. He said that during a time of turmoil and rioting against the Vietnam War, “we had him doing something good.”
He hadn’t learned of how much of a decorated war hero Armstrong was until after he died, making Walther honor him all the more.
“We’ll never have a hero like this again,” he said. “Not from this town.”