52 years later: Armstrong went to the moon, but kept roots planted in Ohio

Today marks 52 years since Wapakoneta’s favorite son became the first man to set foot on the moon.

Ohio not only gave Neil Armstrong roots, but wings. He learned to fly as a teenager in his hometown, and took pieces of the Wright Brothers airplane with him to the moon, where he uttered those 11 famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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Armstrong’s moonwalk thrust him into the international spotlight and made his a household name.

But those who knew him, including former shuttle astronaut Mark Brown of Beavercreek, say Armstrong was a reluctant hero.

“He’s very proud of what he did, but like a lot of us, a little bit of notoriety and PR goes a long way,” he said. “He really enjoyed being able to be a normal person.”

After Armstrong left NASA, he bought a farm just outside Lebanon, where he and his wife raised their two sons. They had cattle and grew corn, soybeans, hay and wheat. During much of the 1970s, Armstrong taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

Phyllis Hartsock owned the Village Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Lebanon, which sits right across the street from the historic Golden Lamb restaurant. She remembers Neil Armstrong coming in almost daily for lunch and ordering a cup of soup.

“He liked split pea, I know,” she said.

Hartsock said Armstrong would sit at the counter and she’d chat with him as she washed dishes. “Sometimes when people would come in the parlor, they would say, ‘Is that Neil Armstrong?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, but you don’t bother him while he’s eating.’”

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Armstrong expressed his gratitude by signing a Milton Caniff sketch of himself one Christmas that read: “Phyllis, with appreciation for your patience. Neil Armstrong.”

“I cherish it,” said Hartsock.

A copy of the autographed picture still hangs in the entrance to the parlor today, impressing even those too young to have witnessed the moonwalk when it happened. It caught Rob Robison’s attention on his first visit to the parlor.

“So Neil Armstrong must have been a customer here!” he said.

Turns out Robison is such a huge space fan he bought his now 4-year old son an authentic Neil Armstrong autograph on eBay when he was born. Through research Robison learned that Armstrong’s autograph is one of the five most-forged autographs in the world.

“Can you imagine the pressure that he had, y’know, very first man on the moon?” he said. “People wanted something from him probably all the time.”

Robison said he understands why the Armstrongs chose to live in Warren County after Apollo.

“It’s just a great place to raise a family and a great place to settle.” Hartsock agreed, “I think Lebanon accepted them and I think they accepted Lebanon.”

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The value of her signed Armstrong picture has undoubtedly increased over the years. However, Hartsock said she has no interest in selling it.

“It’s just been a treasure that I’ll always remember and remember him.”

Armstrong died in Cincinnati on Aug. 25, 2012, due to complications from heart surgery. He was the first man on the moon, but his roots were always firmly planted in Ohio.

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