Friday, June 28, 2019

Neil Armstrong’s Hometown Excited 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago, The Associated Press bureau chief called me to his office in Columbus, Ohio.  “I’m sending you – and Gene (photographer Gene Herrick) – to Wapakoneta.  I want you to do an advance piece on Neil Armstrong’s hometown before he goes to the moon.”

I was a young and inexperienced news reporter.  I’d been on the job less than two years.  Fortunately, Gene Herrick had 29 years of experience with much of that time on major news stories.

We scheduled a one-day trip from Columbus to Wapakoneta, about 90 miles.

Gene drove.  And, as he did, he began sharing stories of his experiences with AP ... some really valuable lessons for a young reporter.  And, we planned who we should see and interview while in Wapak (the common name for Wapakoneta).

We stopped first at the offices of the Wapakoneta Daily News and visited with editor Glenn McCoy.  He was very helpful even though the Daily News was not a AP member and got its national and international news from United Press International (UPI).  They agreed to let Gene process his photos in their photo lab ... in exchange for having access to his photos.

Using leads Glenn provided, we found and interviewed Neil Armstrong’s science teacher, a Boy Scout friend, the local druggist and others.

At the time, Neil’s family was off limits.  Time Magazine had an exclusive contract with families of the astronauts and first chance to interview them.

I was somewhat familiar with Wapakoneta as my wife grew up in Anna, Ohio, just 13 miles south.

We (mostly through Gene’s persistence) uncovered the location of the Grandmother’s farm south of town.  So, off we went.  It turned out that the Grandmother was not included in the Time “gag order.”  And, both Grandmother and Mrs. Armstrong were at the farm outside enjoying the nice spring weather.  Mrs. Armstrong, of course, politely declined to be interviewed.  But, Gene cleverly maneuvered himself to be able to get Mrs. Armstrong in the photo while he was taking photos of the Grandmother.  And, we had our key photo for the story!

On the way back to Columbus, I mulled over how I would write the story.  What should be my lead?  Which interviews should I include?  How do I properly report the feelings of a small town about to be the hometown of perhaps the biggest news story for centuries.

About the time we reached Columbus, I had my lead ... “Excited.  Worried. Proud.”  It was short, sweet and easy to repeat.  And, it summed up the feelings we picked up during our day in Wapakoneta.

Once I had the lead, finishing the piece was pretty easy.

My story hit the wires (including the national “A” wire) on July 3 ... the papers started printing it on July 4.

A month later, Gene and I returned to Wapakoneta and covered Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong while their son was rocketing toward his historic walk on the moon.

I’ll post that around July 19-21.

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