WAPAKONETA — Those who knew Wapakoneta native Neil Armstrong growing up described him as a boy who had a fascination with space that grew even stronger into his adult years.
Dudley Schuler, 88, of St. Marys and formerly of Wapakoneta, said he and Armstrong were both born in 1930, but Armstrong was a year ahead of him in school because he was so smart.
“In the second grade, Neil’s family went to St. Marys, and he went to school there, but I met him when he came to Wapakoneta schools when I was in eighth grade, and he was a year ahead of me,” Schuler said.
They were in Boy Scouts together, and Armstrong worked his way up to Eagle Scout status.
The friends were in the school band, orchestra and Glee club together, with Armstrong playing the baritone horn and Schuler playing cymbals and the violin.
“Neil was interested in almost everything he studied,” Schuler said. “He was one of those people who couldn’t get enough of learning.”
Schuler worked at Zofkie’s Clothing Store in downtown Wapakoneta, and Armstrong worked at Rhinebrading Pharmacy and did odd jobs where he would use the money he earned to get flying lessons.
He said Armstrong was interested in airplanes at a young age. Schuler recalled making model airplanes with Armstrong, and they would fly them together. They would ride bicycles around town, and Armstrong would ride his bike out to the airport for flying lessons.
There was a farm two miles north of Wapakoneta. A man who lived there who owned an airplane and made a runway on his property, and Armstrong’s dad took him to visit.
“Neil’s dad took him out there for an airplane ride, and that was the beginning of his intense need to learn about airplanes and flying,” Schuler said.
Armstrong and Schuler would go to a recreation center in Wapakoneta that had ping pong, pool tables and a dance floor.
As adults, Armstrong kept in touch with Schuler and visited him at the flower shop business in Wapakoneta he owned. Armstrong and his wife, Carol, visited Schuler’s home following a parade 50 years ago to celebrate Armstrong.
Lewis Erb, 88, Wapakoneta, went to church at St. Paul’s in Wapakoneta with Armstrong’s family and was on student council with him.
“We always talked about how the school should be run, and Neil always had something to say,” Erb said.
When Erb was serving in the Army in Korea and Armstrong was serving in the Navy, Erb’s mom talked to Armstrong’s mom to let her know where Erb was in Korea. Armstrong’s mother wrote a letter to him to inform him where Erb was.
“Whenever he flew over, he tipped his wing to me. He couldn’t fly over our artillery outfit, or we would have shot him down,” Erb said.
Erb has memories of Armstrong at church, and they were in the same Sunday School class.
“He went with his dad and mom to church, and he was always anxious to get his dad out of church so they could go to the airport,” Erb said.
Erb attended the parade 50 years ago for Armstrong in Wapakoneta.
“I saw him in the parade and walked out to the street, and the FBI was around him and told me to get back. Neil happened to see me and told them he knew me, and he shook my hand,” Erb said.
Marilyn Wills, 77, was Armstrong’s neighbor growing up on Benton Street and said Armstrong and his dad came to their home.
“One of my favorite stories is that we got one of the first televisions in our neighborhood, and her dad was an avid football fan. In those days you had to put up a big antenna to get any reception,” Wills said.
It was the day of the OSU-Purdue game, and Wills’ dad asked the Armstrongs to help him put up the television antenna and invited them to watch the game.
“I remember seeing Neil up on our roof putting the antenna up, and my sister and I made popcorn and served orange juice to Neil and his dad during the game,” Wills said.
Armstrong was one of seven boys to earn Eagle Scout status, and when Wills’ oldest son earned the rank Armstrong gave him a letter with his signature on it. She said Armstrong’s mother was friends with her mother, and his mom would always buy Girl Scout cookies she sold.
Glenn Smith, a Cridersville native, worked at NASA from 1967 to 1994, where he worked with Armstrong. Smith was a troubleshooter and technical advisor to project managers who managed the contractors and controlled changes and budgets. Smith currently lives in Houston, Texas, near the Johnson Space Center. When he met Armstrong, he was in the process of moving from Lima to Houston to take a job at NASA. He was placed in the Wapakoneta Hall of Fame a few years ago with Armstrong.
He met Neil Armstrong on his first day at NASA in 1967, when he flew to Houston from Ohio in his small private plane. They met at the airport and found out they had a lot in common — growing up near Wapakoneta, building model airplanes and playing the baritone in school.
“We recognize him as one of the very best astronauts — one who came through and everything depended on him alone. They could not have chosen a better person for the job,” Smith said.
In the first days of training of the Apollo 11 crew, Buzz Aldrin was assumed to be the first man to step out of the Lunar Module onto the moon. One day Chris Kraft, head of Mission Control, realized that the first man on the moon would become, in Kraft’s word’s “a legend, an American hero beyond Charles Lindbergh, beyond any soldier or politician or inventor,” Smith said.
Smith said Kraft conferred with three other top managers, who were unanimous in deciding that Armstrong would be the first man on the moon.
Smith recalls the last email he sent to Armstrong after hearing that he was in the hospital for a routine heart bypass. The email Smith sent read, “Get well quick, Neil. If you are going stir crazy, I need to send you more homework.”
Armstrong’s answer typed on a laptop from his hospital bed read “Many thanks, Glenn. It was was a big surprise! And going very well. I guess an exercise program is in order. Neil.”
Shortly thereafter, Smith learned Armstrong died of complications from that surgery. Smith described Armstrong as a good friend and a great American.
Reach Jennifer Peryam at 567-242-0362.