Riding the Elevator with Neil Armstrong

July 20, 2012

Forty-three years ago today, a painfully shy fellow from Wapakoneta, Ohio stepped down from a short ladder onto an alien landscape, and into the pages of history…..

When I was barely eighteen years old, I started my freshman year at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering. I chose the school for several practical reasons and one very emotional one. From a practical standpoint, the school made sense: UC had recently built a huge engineering research center, investing millions of dollars in computer equipment. I had been offered a scholarship in chemical engineering that would cover about 50% of my total costs, and since the school was close to home, my travel back and forth would also be inexpensive. But the one fact about the University of Cincinnati that really got my blood flowing was this: Neil Armstrong had recently accepted a professorship at the college.

This all took place in 1974, only five short years after “one small step.” If you’re much younger than fifty, I doubt you can appreciate the degree to which I wanted to meet the commander of Apollo 11. I’d been a fan of the U.S. manned space program since I could remember, and Neil represented the pinnacle of our achievements in that endeavor. So, of course, I enrolled at UC and awaited my brush with greatness.

It was with great dismay that, upon my arrival at Dabney Hall, the freshman dorm, I found a slip of paper in my mailbox that addressed the very thoughts that had been coursing through my brain. It was a notice to all students that Professor Armstrong, a “very private individual,” had specifically requested not to be approached for any reasons not directly related to classroom work. I was crestfallen! I discussed the note with my newfound friends in the dorm, and we were puzzled, to say the least.  I quickly found that I was only one of many who’d come there with the hope of meeting the first man to walk on the moon. A few of the freshmen were  already placing bets on who’d be the first to speak to him, but the notice had put a damper on this activity.

I simply tried not to think about it, and got serious about preparing for the first day of class.  On Sunday, I walked from the dorm to Rhodes Hall, the site of my 8 am chemistry class. That class would be over at  9 am, after which I had Professor McDonough’s engineering drawing class. Getting there required me to sprint down two floors of stairs, exit Rhodes Hall onto the plaza, cross the plaza, down another flight of stairs, cross underneath the plaza, enter the new engineering complex, and ride the elevator up six floors to my destination. I had ten minutes to accomplish this. Not a problem.  I was ready.

On the first day of class, I sat through Chem 101 with no surprises.  The class was my favorite, and I felt confident about getting a good grade. I had pretty much cleared my mind of any expectations about meeting Neil – after all, he didn’t want to be bothered, and I had important things to think about.

Then, class was over, and I was taking the stairs at top speed, booking across the plaza, down the steps, and into the elevator – and coming to a dead stop.

As I stepped into the elevator, I saw a tall, lanky, well-dressed man facing the wall near the bank of buttons. It was him. As I reached for the panel to push “6”, he turned very briefly to face me.  “Excuse me, sir,” I said as I pressed the button. He responded only with a nod, then turned back to face the wall.

Wednesday was the next day that I had to follow that route to class, and as I rounded the bend into the elevator, there he was again. This time, he looked up, nodded, and remained facing forward. I was afraid to speak. I didn’t want to spook him at this point. He nodded again as I left the elevator.

Friday, as I headed toward that elevator again, I was highly doubtful of seeing Professor Armstrong again. The chances of my timing being that good were just too slim.  But sure enough, there he was, and this time, I spoke. “Good morning, Professor Armstrong.” He looked a little uncomfortable, but then he responded with that voice I’d heard on TV from 240,000 miles away: “Good morning, are you an engineering student here?”  “Yes sir, I’m a freshman in chemical engineering.”  “Well, I guess you won’t be in any of my classes, but I hope you enjoy it here.  All the engineering programs here are well-respected.” “Thank you, sir.”

At that moment, I was about as tongue-tied as Ralphie standing before Santa in “The Christmas Story.” I wanted to tell him how much I believed in the space program, and how much his personal exploits had affected my attitude, fueled my own efforts to be the best student in my class, and helped me to get right where I was at that moment. But I couldn’t. Between his shyness, my shyness and hero-worship, and that damned slip of paper, I never got those words out. So here they are, Neil.  I hope you get a chance to read them, and to appreciate the effect you had on tens of thousands of young engineers in those days.

Interestingly enough, I got to ride the elevator with Neil a lot of times over the following ten weeks.  He never said much after that.  But he always remembered my floor and pressed “6” when I got on.

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Gone with the Wind’s Most Controversial Performance

December 16, 2009

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” an unforgettable movie based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell.   Having seen the movie many times in my life, I watched it again last night with no expectations whatsoever.  I have become ashamed to enjoy this film, for it is clearly racist in practically every scene and characterization.  And yet, watching the film for the umpteenth time, I became fascinated with a truly moving performance: Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of the servant Mammy.

Hattie took amazing amounts of flak for accepting the role, both before and after the film’s release.  Chief among her tormentors was the NAACP, whose president urged her to turn the role down while simultaneously lobbying David O. Selznick to hire an African American cultural advisor to the film.   Cast member Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) called her a sellout.  Practically all of Hattie’s roles were maids or servants of some sort.  Her response to criticism: “Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one.”  At least part of her willingness to play Mammy had to come from the fact that she was paid $450 a week to do so.   That was a lot of money for anyone to earn in 1939.

The role of Mammy was criticised as degrading by many, including the NAACP

And yet, her performance in the role brought a humanity, a depth, a strength to the character that no scriptwriter could have envisioned.  Her character is a very strong woman, despite the fact that, having nowhere to go after the war, she opts to stay with her white “family” in the same capacity she held as a slave.  Her monologue about the death of Bonnie Butler and its aftermath, delivered to Melanie upon the stairs to Rhett’s bedroom, is heart-rending to the extreme.  When I heard it last night, I finally understood why Hattie won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  When she accepted that award, she became not only the first African American to win an Academy Award; she became the first African American ever to attend the awards banquet.  Perhaps this was some consolation for her having been barred from attending the premiere of the film in Atlanta, where the theatres were segregated.  And yet even then, when Clark Gable announced that if the black actors couldn’t attend the premiere, then neither would he, it was Hattie McDaniel who persuaded him to attend “for the good of the film.” 

Hattie never entirely lived down the criticism that rained down after “Gone with the Wind,” and her movie roles became fewer and further between throughout the 1940’s.  She returned to her radio roots as “Beulah” (the first African American woman in a leading role on a radio show intended for a wide audience) shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1952.

Hattie was protrayed on a postage stamp in 2006 as part of the Black Heritage Series

Think what you will about her acceptance of “degrading” roles, her “selling out” for money over principle, or whatever else her critics have called it.  She was a pioneer, a great actress who not only went where none of her peers had gone before, but who made the rest of us feel joy and pain right along with her.   She blazed the trail for many who came later.


A Long-ago Conversation with “Aunt Hattie”

October 6, 2009

While I was putting the post on Brown and Adams County together, I dredged up some old research material.  This reference was found on a website called Planet Murphy.  It contains a lot of genealogical information on a number of Irish families, including the Ellisons.  This excerpt contains a reference to J.R. Murphy’s encounter with our “Aunt Hattie” (whose real name was Harriet Osman) at the old log house on Vaughn’s Chapel Road, about 47 years ago:

J.R. Murphy, www.planetmurphy.org – revised 1 January 2005a

 The following was found my visit to Adams County about 1962 searching for James Ellison. This visit happened one summer day while in graduate school at the University of Michigan. Communications between Ellison descendents had long ceased and there was little information about Adams County. After reviewing an Adams County history book, it was apparent that there was another Ellison clan, probably related, but not of interest at this time. James Ellison and his family were my targets. I drove east of Dunkinsville searching for a minor cemetery which might have our own Ellisons. At approximately the reported cemetery location, there seemed to be nothing. So I stopped the car at an 1802 farm house and knocked on the door. When the door opened, an elderly lady greeted me, and I asked, “I’m looking for a cemetery with Ellisons and am a descendant of Stewart Ellison.” She replied, “Come on in, I know who Stewart Ellison is and I have all the records.” This was Mrs. Harriet Ellison Osman who lived five miles due east of Dunkinsville.

James Ellison was a member of the royal body-guard of the King of England for 16 years. After having his fifth child he decided to sail to America in 1820, leaving his family until he could raise sufficient money to send for them. On the way to America he was ship-wrecked, losing everything he owned except his bible. The bible was in the possession of Mrs. Osman in 1962. She was a descendant of Andrew Ellison (1811). The bible still showed the water-marks from the ship-wreck. In her possession were the immigration papers of James Ellison, which stated he was from Omaf, Ireland and the name of his father, Andrew Ellison, and his wife’s father, Thaman Stewart. He entered through the Department of Immigration on 2 September 1820. Osman thought that James Ellison lived on Wheat Ridge in the vicinity of Dunkinsville or West Union.

Mrs. Osman reported children and early descendants were buried in the “private” Ellison cemetery next to her 1802 farmhouse.

Mrs. Osman also added that Mary Stewart was also from Omaf, Ireland and had a twin sister, Myra Stewart, who married William McNeilan. So far, “Omaf” cannot be located. Shirley Graham reported on ancestry.com that Myra’s husband was actually Thomas McNeilan, and that one son, William McNeilan (1 May 1808 County Tyrone, Ireland), and a sister, Jane McNeilan, (1817) did immigrate to Adams County Ohio (about 1846-1850 for William). In 1850, William McNeilan was adjacent to Andrew Ellison on the census.

Comment: My biggest regret with this meeting is that an exact handwritten copy wasn’t made of the immigration paper to be sure there can be no other interpretation. Should it again surface (i.e. at the Adams County Library or in someone’s possession), this should be done. Mary Schmertz (descendant of John Ellison + Margaret Thompson) echoed this sentiment: “There are several things that make finding the truth about the Ellisons difficult. …Most of the family history comes from Hattie (Harriet Ellison Osman), who was apparently a stubborn woman who wouldn’t accept even solid evidence that (some of) her information was incorrect (e-mail of 16 October 2004).”

Hattie lies in the Ellison family plot near Dunkinsville

Hattie lies in the Ellison family plot near Dunkinsville

This may be the grave of James Ellison's wife - or not - too many Ellisons and not enough names to go around!

This may be the grave of James Ellison's wife, but it's hard to be sure. Too many Ellisons and not enough names to go around!

I’m not sure about the accuracy of Hattie’s genealogical data, but Mr. Murphy definitely got the “stubborn” part right! 


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