Neil, Flat Stanley, and Me

Posted on Wed, August 29, 2012

I knew Neil Armstrong, not all that well, but for a very long time. I first met him in July 1972, when the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) opened the Neil Armstrong Museum in the astronaut’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio. A 20-something director of education for the OHS, I had planned all of the exhibitions for that museum. I wrote my first short book, or long pamphlet, depending on your point of view, as part of the project: The Giant Leap: A Chronology of Ohio Aerospace events and Personalities (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1971). Neil agreed to write the foreword for the book, an extraordinary honor for a budding historian. When my little book was published, the designer printed Neil’s signature at the end of the forward. Twenty years later, in 1991, Neil spent some time at the National Air and Space Museum working on his short-lived television series, First Flights. He was sitting in my office one day when I showed him a copy of the book, and asked him if he remembered writing the foreword. He said of course he did, picked it up and signed it beneath his printed signature, this at a time when he was no longer giving autographs. That is a souvenir I treasure. I met Neil quite a few times over the years. In 2000 I even recruited him to membership on the First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board, an organization which I chaired that was involved in helping to plan the commemoration of the first flights of the Wright brothers a century before. It was one of my most important contributions to the success of the centennial effort. Neil was one of the most active members of the Board. The most private of men, he nevertheless made a great many media appearances in 2003, insuring that the public understood and appreciated the genius of the Wright brothers and the extent to which their invention had shaped the modern world. Only once during the forty years that I knew him, did I presume to ask Neil for a personal favor. In the fall of 2010 the National Museum of Naval Aviation invited me to present a talk on the Wright brothers at its annual history symposium. Our grandson, a proud first grader, was involved in a “Flat Stanley” project. Each of the kids in his class colored a pasteboard cut-out of a character named “Flat Stanley,” who was then mailed to friends or relatives in another part of the country. Those kind folks were asked to take photos of Stanley at local scenic spots and send the cut-out character and the photos back to the student, along with a letter talking about the places he had visited. The kids used that information to create a poster and tell the class about Stanley’s travels. Our grandson had sent his Flat Stanley to his uncle in Georgia, but as my wife and I were about to leave on a long driving trip through the South, Alex’s teacher asked us if we would take one of his classmate’s cut-out Stanley with us on our trip. The child responsible for this Stanley was the daughter of new South Asian immigrants and wanted to participate, but did not know whom to send her character to. So, off we went on a trip that would take Flat Stanley on a visit with family in Georgia, attendance at the Pensacola conference, and on to a wedding in south Florida.

When we arrived at Pensacola, I discovered that Neil was there, as well. We chatted at some length, and I thought about asking him to have his picture taken with Flat Stanley, but decided that I did not want to impose. At the end of the conference, as my wife and I were loading our luggage into the car parked outside the Visiting Officers Quarters, a familiar voice behind me said, “Tom, say hello to Wilbur and Orville for me!” On the spur of the moment I stuck my head in the car and asked Nancy to give me Flat Stanley and a camera. I tried my best to explain this fairly complex notion for a first grade project to Neil, and asked him if he would have his picture taken with Stanley and me. He did so, with grace and a huge smile. I just hope he remembers to say hello to Wilbur and Orville for me.

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