Astronauts, family mourn nation’s “reluctant hero”

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Astronauts, family mourn nation’s “reluctant hero”

Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crewmates, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, were among many former NASA astronauts who attended a private memorial service this morning at the Camargo Club in the Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill.

The 75-minute service concluded with a flyover by the Navy Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-106 in a missing man formation — a fitting tribute to a man who, despite his world fame, considered himself first and foremost a pilot. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said afterward that the famously humble Armstrong would not have liked all the attention surrounding the service, “but he would have appreciated that flyover.”

Bolden said Armstrong should be remembered as “the embodiment of everything an American ought to be. He was an explorer. If there was a mountain, he wanted to see what was on the other side.”

Armstrong, who was the first man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, died Aug. 25 of complications from cardiovascular procedures, according to his family. He was 82.

The service was very much in keeping with the way Armstrong lived his life — private and dignified, with the world media kept politely at bay. Among the dignitaries in attendance were former Ohio Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and the third American in space; astronaut James Lovell, who served on NASA missions for Gemini 7 and 12 and Apollo 8 and 13; astronaut Eugene Cernan, who served on Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 and Apollo 17; and Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.

Following the service, Anders said, “His small step will be remembered by history as long as there are history books…We will never get another hero like Neil Armstrong.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, delivered one of the four eulogies as did Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark Armstrong, and longtime friend and Cincinnati businessman Charles Mechem Jr., the former chairman and CEO of Taft Broadcasting.

Portman estimated between 200 to 300 people attended what he called a “beautiful service” that blended humor and emotion as well as stories about Armstrong as a man and as “a reluctant hero.”

“It was never about him,” Portman said. “It was about his nation and those who enabled him to achieve great things. He never wanted to talk about what he accomplished, but about the 100,000 people who made it possible for him to walk on the moon.”

Portman included remarks from President Barack Obama, as well as Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who praised Armstrong in his acceptance speech Thursday night.

‘He always did it well’

The most moving eulogies, Portman said, came from Armstrong’s sons, “who shared recollections about what he was like as a dad and a grandfather, making model airplanes, as well as his antics on the golf course.”

In his own eulogy for his friend, Portman said, “I wanted to talk about Neil the man as well as the national hero. He was a man of great intellect. He had a great sense of humor, and there was always a gleam in his eye. He loved his family.”

Portman added the Wapakoneta native epitomized Midwestern sensibilities: “He was someone who always did his duty, and, thank God, he always did it well.”

Portman said it was “amazing” that so many NASA astronauts attended the service, particularly Aldrin and Collins, who shared the historic moment with Armstrong.

Anders said there was a friendly competition among the Apollo astronauts who all coveted the “gold ring” — becoming the first man to walk on the moon. “I would have been glad to beat him to it,” he acknowledged, “but NASA picked the best person of all of us to do the job.”

Wisdom was Armstrong’s most prominent personal trait, Anders said: “He showed wisdom in his actions before and after the lunar landing. He was very humble and he was wise not to commercialize his hero status.”

Armstrong was a Navy fighter pilot in the Korean War before he began a career at NASA that spanned the X-15 rocket plane test program, and Gemini and Apollo space launches throughout the 1960s. He and Aldrin landed on the moon on board the Apollo 11 lunar module, while Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo 11 command ship.

In the years after the moon walk, Armstrong was a college aerospace engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati, a businessman and a civic leader, among other pursuits. He married his second wife, Carol Knight, in 1999.

A public, national memorial service in Washington, D.C. is being planned for Sept. 12, according to a family spokesperson. The Armstrong family asked for memorial contributions to be made to the new Neil Armstrong New Frontiers Initiative for children, a Telluride Foundation scholarship in his name or to a scholarship fund in his name at The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

The Camargo Club service ended with the recessional hymn, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” After the flyover, the red-kilted Bag Piper Corps of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office played “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America.”

It was one of many moments that brought tears to the eyes of 71-year-old Juri Taalman, who flew in from Hartford, Conn., to fulfill a promise that he made on July 20, 1969. While honeymooning in Amsterdam, Taalman and his new bride, Tania, watched the moon landing with a large crowd in the aptly-named Apollo Hotel. “A huge cheer went up the moment Neil stepped on the moon, and a British man made a champagne toast ‘to all mankind,’” Taalman recalled. “It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I told my wife that if I survived, I would come to Neil Armstrong’s funeral.”

Undaunted by the lack of an invitation to this most exclusive of events, Taalman was dropped off by a taxi outside the Camargo Club. Taalman was invited to join the press corps assembled at the country club’s horse stables across the street.

Even from that vantage point, Taalman said, he’s very glad he kept his promise: “We are inspired by this man not only in the present time, but for all time. He was the perfect representative to carry this watershed event. We will all be forgotten, but Neil Armstrong will be remembered 50,000 years into the future, as long as there is recorded history.”

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