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Published: Sunday, 7/19/2009

Wapakoneta won t forget its hero

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WAPAKONETA, Ohio Forty years ago tomorrow, Neil Armstrong took one small step for a man, one giant leap for Wapakoneta.

Astronomers may say otherwise, but on July 20, 1969, this little Midwestern town became a star when its native son became the first person to set foot on the moon.

It s the biggest thing that s ever happened to this town, said Don Klock, 81, who at the time was a neighbor of the astronaut s parents and remembers all the media that flocked to the area. Everybody was kind of in awe with regard to this event and that a hometown man was going to be on the flight.

That awe remains for many in this town of fewer than 10,000. The evidence is everywhere, from the road bearing Armstrong s name to the space-themed wallpaper and glass cases filled with books, buttons, and other memorabilia at a local McDonald s.

Neil Armstrong is still very much a part of this community today, said Becky Macwhinney, historic site manager at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum. He is our hometown hero.

Now a resident of Lebanon, Ohio, Armstrong, is not granting interviews on the 40th anniversary of his moonwalk, according to a NASA spokesman, and it hasn t escaped the notice of locals that the famously private 78-year-old doesn t come back all that often, although some note that he did return for a class reunion in 2007.

Still, that hasn t stopped them from wrapping their arms around his legacy. This year s festivities include a life-sized astronaut carved from cheese and the world s largest MoonPie made from 14 pounds of marshmallow. The air and space museum will be free for Auglaize County residents tomorrow and half price for everyone else.

The museum, located just off I-75 under a dome that gives it the aura of a lunar base, includes a moon rock and numerous artifacts related to Armstrong. State budget woes mean the museum s future is uncertain, but the Ohio Historical Society is working with a local group to help keep it open and hopes to announce plans soon.

Dawn Luthman of Russia, Ohio, teaches her son, Dawson, 7, about Neil Armstrong s space suit at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum. Dawn Luthman of Russia, Ohio, teaches her son, Dawson, 7, about Neil Armstrong s space suit at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum.
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The museum can tell only part of the story, however. The rest can be found at places like the nearby Lucky Steer restaurant, where the Moon Menu offers items such as Houston, We Have a ... Burger. Here you re likely to find living history from people like waitress Linda Carter, 58. She remembers that while there was excitement at the prospect of a local man landing on the moon nearly 250,000 miles away back in 1969, there also was fear.

Everybody was a little frightened for his life, she said.

In the end, of course, there was celebration, especially at the home of Armstrong s parents, which still stands. People continue to come by to take pictures of the single-story structure situated on a quiet, oak-lined street that is now named Neil Armstrong Drive.

Neighbor Ruth Heller, 80, was there the night of the moon landing.

We were over there most of the night watching television and oh-ing and awing and going on, she said. It was really a wonderful feeling that you were involved with someone that had done such a wonderful thing to go to the moon.

Ned Keiber was involved earlier than most as a classmate of Armstrong s at Blume High School, where the quiet future astronaut was in band and student council. Mr. Keiber recalls working on a project in physics class with Armstrong, who had designed a home-made wind tunnel, and how the two took flying classes at a local airport.

Ned Keiber went to high school with Neil Armstrong in Wapakoneta. Ned Keiber went to high school with Neil Armstrong in Wapakoneta.
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All the time we flew together and things like that I never heard him mention the moon, he said. Maybe he was thinking about it, but I don t think any of us were thinking about that in 1946.

That seems like forever for people like Mariah Hoge, a 16-year-old who missed out on all the excitement of 40 years ago and belongs to a generation that even in Wapakoneta can take space travel for granted.

As her mother, Robbin, 55, tried to explain: We saw all that. We re more part of it. All she s seen is ...

...movies, Mariah said. It s like another day.

Except this day came with a lesson much bigger than a man on the moon, no matter where you re from or how many years you ve been alive. As Mr. Keiber said, It s the old story that any town can produce just about anything they want in this particular country.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103



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