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Neil Armstrong: 'Mr. Average Guy'

Thoughts on Armstrong's determination to have a private life

by Deborah Rieselman

How does a writer crank out a 1,000-word piece on an individual without interviewing him? In 1976, UC's director of information Al Kuettner admirably pulled it off for the Birmingham, Ala., Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber wanted an article on Neil Armstrong, who was a UC engineering professor at the time. The feature would be placed in Birmingham Magazine to draw attention to the chamber presenting the first man on the moon with an award of some kind.

Kuettner received the request, but he was keenly aware of Armstrong's aversion to interviews and public attention. In fact, later that year, the UC director would mention to the professor, "I have spent a good deal of my time at UC trying to insure that exploiters and nuts — in the press and elsewhere — do not harass you."

"Exploiters" included hordes of people seeking Armstrong's endorsement for products, and "nuts" included Armstrong's long-time barber, who actually gathered his customer's newly shorn hair and sold it for a reported $3,000.

Of course, the quantity of time Kuettner had spent trying to shield Armstrong provided the writer with a clear understanding of the celebrity's "other side." And his resulting piece is quite insightful.

Kuettner gave the final piece to Armstrong for approval, and it was only sent to that single publication. So here is the article — for the first time printed outside of Birmingham.

(First-man-on-the-moon and former UC professor Neil Armstrong died Aug. 25, 2012, at 82 years of age.)


Neil Armstrong feature

Submitted by Al Kuettner, UC director of information
Written in August 1976 for Birmingham Magazine

Neil Armstrong has survived another anniversary of his landing on the moon.

With the regularity of a countdown, the Armstrong watchers surface every July 20 in an effort to discover what the great man is doing, how he likes teaching at the University of Cincinnati, and -- priceless of all inquiries -- if he ever gets nostalgic about being out of the space program.

Armstrong doesn't even parry such questions. Usually, he simply ignores them. He calls this "cotton candy reporting" and leaves word that he doesn't care to comment.

This July 20, on the seventh anniversary of the day that he took "one small step for man," the pressure was even greater on Armstrong to speak up, for a spectacular coincidence had occurred. On the same day, the U.S. had landed an unmanned spaceship on Mars, a mission that was one of the great scientific spinoffs of the glamour flights of Armstrong and other spacemen.

“Where was Armstrong?” reporters from all over the place wanted to know. Surely on this day he would speak out. But, following his standard practice, he was still unavailable for comment. That night, responding to an invitation from the Cincinnati Reds, he observed the anniversary by throwing out the first ball. The morning paper carried his picture, a somewhat whimsical pose in the Reds dugout as he waited to start the game.

In the five years since Armstrong signed on at the University of Cincinnati as a professor of aerospace engineering, he has stuck with a determination to be recognized as a scientist, professor and dirt farmer rather than as some kind of space hero. It hasn't been easy.

Reporters have staked out his farm near Cincinnati; a few have slipped into his classroom, and he is still accosted in public places by people who want his comments or his autograph. He is constantly badgered to sponsor commercial products, to make speeches and to write articles on any subject he chooses. He has a New York agent who fields all such inquiries.

Mr. Average Guy

Because of his determination to be a private citizen, Armstrong is often labeled a recluse and a "funny guy." Actually, neither reference is accurate. Those who know him best recognize that he really does desire to be out of the limelight and that he is a very bright scientist in serious pursuit of scientific knowledge and research. They respect him for that commitment, and on those terms, Armstrong is Mister Average Guy.

One day, a newly arrived official of the university was invited to an introductory lunch with Armstrong at the Faculty Center and was given the suggestion ahead of time not to get into the space program. The two had a delightful meeting, discussing interesting places to dine in small Ohio towns.

Armstrong has become increasingly visible in the past year but this has been accomplished gradually and on his terms. He once told a reporter that he would probably start being more public-minded "after I cease being so much in the news." He gave up on waiting that long because it obviously was not going to happen very soon.

The face and voice of the first moon lander have appeared in several television commercials, and he is accepting more -- but not many -- invitations. He also serves on four corporate boards of directors.

Armstrong's main interest remains scientific, and his research effort is concentrated at present in an Institute of Engineering and Medicine, which he directs at UC. The Institute was established at the university in association with the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati and Purdue University.

Associated in the project with Armstrong are Dr. George Rieveschl, vice president of special projects at UC; Dr. Henry Heimlich, director of surgery at Jewish Hospital; and Dr. Edward Patrick, professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University. The four are members of a research team that is developing an improved pump for heart-lung machines. The pump, originally designed by NASA to circulate fluid in astronauts' space suits, was found to be effective for use in outside-the-body heart-lung systems.

It is this interdisciplinary opportunity provided by UC that caused Armstrong to choose the university over a number of others that were bidding for his services.

Until he was confident on his new university turf, however, Armstrong employed all the caution of a good engineer working on a new experimental model. In times past, this has presented some problems for the university news staff.

Once, Armstrong accepted an invitation to be a panelist on a University Earth Day program, scheduled in a large auditorium complete with life-size rear vision screens. He asked, however, that his name not be used in advance publicity and the program sponsors adhered to the stipulation of the letter.

"I am not going to allow my name to be used to draw a crowd," Armstrong explained.

Without his drawing power, the program drew a respectable audience of people interested in the subject and not the crowd that certainly would have responded to the Armstrong name. Those who came were treated to spectacular color slides made of the earth by Armstrong and projected onto a huge screen.

"Awareness of the fragility of our environment may be the most important outcome of the space program, for we are an island oasis in the blackness of space," he explained as slide after slide provided new appreciation of Mother Earth.

Armstrong is still one of the strongest boosters of scientific space exploration, although the publicity build-up and show-biz aspects of the NASA program sometimes gave him a chill. He feels that space research will eventually eliminate human damage from natural devastations through an early warning system and will help take the guesswork out of much of our earthly toil.

"Satellites can tell us more about a 10-acre field than the farmer who works the soil," he says.

This aspect would have more than theoretical value for Armstrong who owns and operates a 163-acre farm a 40-minute drive from his university classroom. The farm is not a plaything with Armstrong, who calls himself a producing farmer. A drought means just as much to him as to the farmers nearby. He bought the place in part to teach his young sons the value of being close to the earth.

Armstrong formally joined UC on Oct. 1, 1971, coming to the University from a post as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics, Office of Advanced Research and Technology, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. There he was responsible for the coordination and management of overall NASA research and technology related to aeronautics.

A native of Wapakoneta, Ohio, he holds a 1955 bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University and a 1970 master of science degree in aerospace engineering from University of Southern California. He also holds honorary doctorates from six universities.

As a naval aviator from 1949 to 1952, he flew 78 combat missions during the Korean action.

An aeronautical research pilot for NACA and NASA, he was an X-15 project pilot, flying that experimental aircraft to more than 200,000 feet and approximately 4,000 miles per hour.

Selected as an astronaut by NASA in September 1962, Armstrong served as backup command pilot for the Gemini 5 flight. He was command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission, lauched on March 16, 1966, when he performed the first successful docking of two vehicles in space. He later was backup command pilot for the Gemini 11 mission.

Armstrong has often remarked that his training and experiences have served to increase his belief that man is capable of solving age-old problems of environment, hunger and health. He fervently believes that everyone -- regardless of trade or education -- still in this age of science has a part to play in determining the future of this planet.

Taped to a University wall are these words attributed to Armstrong:

"In very few places is the master craftsman accorded the stature that his abilities deserve. It has not been demonstrated to my satisfaction that the creative skills of a fine machinist or cabinet maker are any less demanding than those of a fabric designer or ceramic artist knighted with a baccalaureate degree."


Note: Former UC information officer Al Kuettner died in 2009 at the age of 95.
Read about his impressive background here.