It's moonwalk's 25th year but Neil Armstrong is shy First man on moon has farm in Ohio

July 19, 1994|By Newsday

LEBANON, Ohio -- Tom Barr is sitting in the passenger seat of the rented car, mixing street directions for this quiet town in southwestern Ohio with pleasant chatter.

"Quaint, I guess, is the word most people use to describe the town," Mr. Barr says with practiced patience. "Make a left up here, it's down the road."

Mr. Barr has given these directions before. He's 35 years old, born and raised next door in Mason, with the blond hair, wire-rimmed glasses and friendly manner that is all Midwest. This holds him in good stead. As the editor of the Western Star, the small weekly that is the state's oldest newspaper, he's the media touchstone for those assigned to find Neil Armstrong.

And with tomorrow being the 25-year anniversary of Mr. Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, Mr. Barr has been in demand. He has obliged reporters from Houston to Norway, pointing out the farm in Lebanon that Mr. Armstrong owns, the post office that returns much of his mail unopened and the nine-hole municipal golf club the former astronaut frequents. Then he wishes you luck.

A couple of miles outside town, two dark green barns emerge, obscuring a large house surrounded by trees. All three structures are set back about 80 yards from the winding, two-lane road. The 190-acre Armstrong farm.

Twenty-five years after half a billion people watched him take one small step for man, Mr. Armstrong works hard at keeping out of sight.

"I think Neil decided if he wanted any peace at all, he'd have to cut himself off," says Chris Kraft, then NASA's director of flight operations. "But he is not a recluse. You should not draw that conclusion."

No, he's not. Since leaving NASA, Mr. Armstrong has taught engineering, worked with Dr. Henry J. Heimlich (yes, that Heimlich) to adapt Apollo technology to pumps for artificial hearts and lungs, and served on the commission that investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster. He's on the boards of seven companies.

He's just kept things to himself. His father learned that he had been selected to be the first man on the moon while listening to a radio news broadcast. His wife was frequently quoted as saying silence is a Neil Armstrong answer, the word "no" a Neil Armstrong argument. That he would become the Greta Garbo of the space program fits the personality profile.

Always shy and private, Mr. Armstrong rarely does one-on-one interviews, a policy that he has held to for a quarter-century. He is the lone member of the three-man Apollo 11 crew not to write a book and has resolutely turned away opportunities to cash in on his name. People who know him casually say he's quiet but friendly, as unpretentious as he is brilliant. Those who know him well won't say a thing, offering only that they choose to respect his desire for privacy.

Mr. Armstrong, who will turn 64 in August, guards his privacy in a manner that borders on obsession. He wrote a column five years ago for the Western Star that he personally copyrighted. He's wont to walk through town wearing dark glasses and a hat pulled down low.

Lebanon Postmaster Larry Webb is under instruction not to forward anything without the proper post office box. Mr. Armstrong will rarely sign for a package, assuming -- correctly, Mr. Webb guesses -- that the sender is looking for an autograph.

Mr. Armstrong long ago informed NASA that he would not participate in any of the agency's 25th-anniversary celebrations, feeling he fulfilled that obligation five years ago with a series of news conferences.

Mr. Armstrong moved to Lebanon with his wife and two sons in 1971, when he left NASA to teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati some 30 miles down Interstate 75, a position he held for eight years. About 100 miles in the other direction is Wapakoneta, where Mr. Armstrong was born on his grandfather's farm and learned to fly at 16.

Folks in Lebanon say not much has changed over the past 23 years, save for the 20 antiques stores along the red brick sidewalks of Broadway and its side streets that help bring in about half a million tourists a year. For those who encounter fame, few choose to virtually vanish from sight. Some say Mr. Armstrong felt uncomfortable receiving so much credit.

Or perhaps it was the weight of unrealistic expectations, as if being the first on the moon would provide Mr. Armstrong with unique insight.

"When I'd hear Neil talk, I'd always wait for him to tell me something more profound than the others, because he was first," says Alan Bean, the fourth man to step on the moon. "But he never did. It's not as if being the first suddenly made him wiser. Still, I'd be waiting for some amazing fact I never thought of before. It was four or five years before I stopped expecting it."

Like Charles Lindbergh, Mr. Armstrong knew personal tragedy. He lost a daughter to a brain tumor just shy of her third birthday. He rescued one of his sons as his house burned down, his wife describing the 40 feet back into the flaming building as a trip longer than Mr. Armstrong's journey to the moon.

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