WAPAKONETA — Journalists, for all their faults — real and perceived — are the chroniclers of history.
Their words and images, for years primarily seen through the medium of newspapers and today branching out into an ever-growing number of online venues, are preserved through the ages to give future generations a glimpse into what has come before them.
But as is the case with most historical accounts, seldom do journalists interpret events with an identical set of eyes.
Take, for example, the media’s coverage of Wapakoneta native and space hero Neil Armstrong’s grandiose homecoming parade on Sept. 6, 1969. The greatly-anticipated event attracted visitors from far and wide who hoped to get a glimpse of the man who less than two months earlier had become the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon.
But how many people assembled in Wapakoneta on that September day?
The Journal-Gazette from Fort Wayne proclaimed in a headline: “70,000 Cheer ‘Man on Moon.’” But according to The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, “50,000 Cheers Greet Neil.”
The Detroit Free Press also estimated the crowd at 50,000, while The Blade from Toledo set the number at 60,000. The Chicago Tribune’s headline screamed “100,000 Hail Neil Armstrong.”
Nearly 50 years later, the actual number is insignificant. Suffice to say that the population of Wapakoneta swelled to the bursting point on a day that started under cloudy conditions — and one on which the day’s guest of honor missed his wake-up call.
According to writer Ned Bell’s account in The Blade, “The moon-conquering spaceman was 40 minutes late in starting his day because he overslept. His father, Steve, said that Neil didn’t awaken at the appointed hour, ‘so we just let him sleep.’”
Once Armstrong was up and moving, there were events to be attended. On the morning of Sept. 6 the moon-walking hero spoke to a throng of children at a morning ceremony.
Gary Partain of The Journal-Gazette described the event this way:
“Falling drizzle ended here Saturday morning shortly before America’s foremost space hero, Neil Armstrong, told thousands of cheering youngsters of the ‘dawning of the age of Aquarius.’”
(It was a reference to a popular song of the day by The 5th Dimension. Check YouTube.)
According to Partain’s account, Armstrong told the “starry-eyed youngsters” he shared the sentiments expressed in the popular song.
“The stars in the Aquarius constellation helped me to rendezvous the Apollo 11 craft. The Aquarius sign is a water bearer not a water drinker and I think the age will come true if you are willing to carry your share of water,” Armstrong said.
Persons over the age of 17 were not admitted to hear the astronaut’s remarks. One parent was not happy when he was refused admission to the youth-only event.
“Would it help if I told you I came all the way from Memphis, Tennessee, to attend the homecoming?” one man was quoted as saying.
According to a story in The Chicago Tribune, Armstrong was also forced to defend his religious beliefs at that morning session.
“Armstrong said the flight in Apollo 11 affirmed his faith in God,” according to Tribune reporter Sheila Wolfe, noting the astronaut added that “the peace and beauty of outer space made me even more aware of the power of the Supreme Being.”
A German magazine had recently claimed that Armstrong was an atheist.
Good journalists paint a picture with their words, and writers from some of the top newspapers in the country were on hand for Armstrong’s homecoming. Here’s how some saw the festivities:
“Astronaut Neil Armstrong was given more than a hero’s welcome in his hometown yesterday. Wapakoneta paid homage to him as though he were a god.
“A seething mass of humanity lined the route of his homecoming parade and reached out to grab him. Women cried.”
Richard Widman, The Plain Dealer
“It was a day of tumultuous ceremonies during which his Wapakoneta neighbors would have given Armstrong the stars and the moon, too, if they had their way.”
Gary Partain, The Journal-Gazette
“Many of the townsfolk wore buttons declaring: ‘I live in Wapakoneta, can I help you?’
“Jane Siferd, 18 – an age when many young people leave for the big city – wore one reading: ‘I live in Wapakoneta – Help.’”
Ladd Neuman, The Detroit Free Press
“An ever-smiling Armstrong said the welcomes that the Apollo 11 crew received in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were very heart-warming, but he really looked forward to spending this day here, meeting old classmates, seeing his parents and grandmother and all of the citizens and friends from all over Ohio.
“I am just glad to be here,” Armstrong said.
Sheila Wolfe, The Chicago Tribune