Neil Armstrong quietly flew a small step for mankind into the Lowcountry

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comSeptember 11, 2012 

Neil Armstrong poses with representatives of the Muscular Dystrophy Association at a Hilton Head Island Celebrity Golf Tournament banquet.

FILE, STAFF PHOTO

Neil Armstrong landed on Hilton Head Island several times.

He came in hopes that Lowcountry children, every step still small, might climb a higher ladder in life.

Long after Armstrong mesmerized the world by being the first human to walk on the moon, he slipped quietly in and out of the Lowcountry to participate in the Hilton Head Island Celebrity Golf Tournament. He flew his own plane down from his farm in Lebanon, Ohio, in 1985, 1987 and 1988. The Labor Day Weekend affair has raised about $4 million since it began in 1979, originally for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and more recently for local children's charities.

When Armstrong died Aug. 25 at age 82, his family's public statement included something that fits his short hop to the Lowcountry, as well as his "giant leap for mankind":

"While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves."

Cary Griffin, one of the tournament founders, said Armstrong liked to play golf, but wasn't a standout. He brought no attention to himself, even though he soared above a field of high achievers.

Islanders Russ Brown and Joe Agee of Bluffton got to play a round with Armstrong. Brown said, "You never would have guessed he was who he was."

Armstrong signed autographs and posed for photos with the gallery. And at the banquet that night, Armstrong discovered that Brown's father, like Armstrong, was a highly decorated Navy fighter pilot.

"He invited my wife and me to come visit him at his farm anytime we wanted," Brown said.

Retired local journalist William H. Whitten -- who was there when Armstrong blasted into history and wrote a book published in Beaufort called "July 20, 1969: The Day Man Landed on the Moon" -- has noticed something else this week.

On eBay, a Hilton Head Island Celebrity Golf Tournament poster purportedly signed by Armstrong and other celebrities is being offered for $10,999. An autographed golf ball is offered for $9,999.

Armstrong quit signing autographs in 1994, and long struggled with the world's penchant to make him a commodity.

Gayle Wingo directed the celebrity tournament for many years and can say, "His presence certainly validated your event."

But that's not how she remembers the man who will be saluted Thursday in a public memorial at the Washington National Cathedral before being buried at sea.

"One year, he couldn't fly into Hilton Head because of bad weather," Wingo said. "He called me and said he wanted me to know he was grounded in Augusta, Ga. I expected him to say he'd be headed back home, but he said he was getting a rental car and he'd be driving down to spend the weekend with us. Not many people would do that."

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