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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