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Category:  General History
Published:  January, 2008

One Small Step for Man…One Giant Leap for Fayette County

By Al Owens
Mankind has always been fascinated by the cosmos. More than a hundred years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Jules Verne penned “From the Earth to the Moon.” Verne had placed three space travelers into a “cannon” (named Columbianad) and launched them from Florida.

Verne’s prophetic story was later coupled with the H.G. Wells’ 1901 classic, “The First Man on the Moon,” as the basis for the very first sci-fi movie, Georges Mềllề’s 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon.”

Within a month of when “A Trip to the Moon” was being released to American movie audiences, in Southwestern Pennsylvania, they were putting the finishing touches on the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville. Over in Westmoreland County, a few days earlier, it was reported that George Fisher had fallen asleep on a roof while on the job, and when he woke up, he’d forgotten where he was – and fell to his death.
Fantasy or real adventures in space, you must understand, had not yet pierced the public conscience.

That is not the case during the latter part of the 20th century. It was in 1961 that we could actually “slip the surly bonds of earth” had truly engaged people everywhere.

I have fond memories of Monty Leos, a neighborhood friend, and I contemplating the stars as we gazed upwards at the stars in the late 1950’s. We’d played baseball into the evening on our Searight Avenue field all evening, and then, when the sun went down – we’d simply lay face up in the outfield and ponder the world beyond the clouds.

It was in May of 1961, when former Pittsburgh Steeler and future NFL coach Ted Marchibroda joined Uniontown’s coaching legend Abe Everhart at an all-sports banquet at Frazier High School.

On that same day, one man flew higher than any man had ever flown with the assist of a balloon. Unfortunately, 34 year-old Lt. Cmdr. Victor Prather of Bethesda, Md. died after being lifted 133,500 feet – when the sling that was attached to his rescue helicopter gave way and he plunged 25 feet.
The following day, Alan B. Shepard had made a much more successful flight as part of America’s first foray into space. Shepard was lifted a mere 290 miles down range from Cape Canaveral – and the students at Lafayette Junior High School saw it all on live television. A television was placed in the middle of the auditorium floor so we could witness history. Although that particular bit of history only lasted 19 minutes – it was spectacular for the time.

There, too, was a local bit of flavor. Mrs. John Hmura of West Leisenring had a personal reason for cheering Shepard’s flight. She and her late husband knew Shepard. When Mrs. Hmura’s husband was stationed at the Naval Base at Virginia Beach, Virginia, the Shepards had been their dinner guests on several occasions.

Just 20 days later, John F. Kennedy, officially ushered in the space age, with his now famous proclamation before a joint session of congress, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” he said, not knowing that statement would come true.

Decades later, politicians still use that statement to reflect the collective will of the American people. No statement has ever encapsulated the determination to perform great things as that one. Especially since, at that time, The Russian space program was far ahead of our own.

But somehow we caught up. On July 19th, 1969 in the Morning Herald’s television listings informed its readers that all the programming for every major television network would focused on the events taking place in space.

For the record, I never saw any of it. I was in Vietnam. On July 20th, when a half-billion people watched as Americans landed on the moon, I could only imagine what people with television sets all over the world were watching. I’d missed hearing the stirring words, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” as Apollo 11’s crew landed on the face of the moon. I could only walk outside my barracks at Danang Air Base – to see if I could actually see the space craft that had captured the attention of everybody on this planet. I could not find them.

Nor, as it was reported on July 21st, when Neil Armstrong climbed onto the surface of the moon and said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” could I have been a witness to that monumental piece of history.

As it turns out, perhaps the brother of John Kennedy, Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy missed the event too. On the same day the Eagle landed, he’d been involved in a tragic automobile accident that nearly forced the moon landing from the front pages of the Morning Herald.
A former Kennedy secretary, 28 year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, had died in the crash. A story that would stay on the front pages long after that of Neil Armstrong’s exploits. It’s one that still haunts Kennedy today.

Meanwhile, just minutes after the lunar module touched down on the moon, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, walked onto a baseball field before their game that day, to offer a prayer for the astronauts. And the Philadelphia crowd sang “God Bless America” in tribute to them.

Meanwhile, in Uniontown, the coverage in the Morning Herald and the Evening Standard was mostly about the moon landing.
MEN WALK ON THE MOON, the Morning Herald announced in a bold headline. There were reactions to this event from around the world. A teenager in Yugoslavia lamented the achievement, by claiming “They have stolen the romance out of the moon, and will never been the same.”

But in Uniontown, there was no talk of losing anything. George Unice of Lenox St. beamed, “Most thrilling to watch and hard to believe it happened.”

There are always curiosities associated with stories approaching that magnitude. A certain Neil Armstrong of Pittsburgh, for instance, noted that “The good old earth is good enough for me.” In Uniontown, another Neil Armstrong, the one from Binghamton N.Y., visited a family on Fairview Street in Uniontown. (Although, curiously no mention was made of the name similarity in the personal column)

Local businesses also wanted to remind their customers they, too, were mighty proud of America’s new heroes. Moss Supermarket ran a full page ad with the words, “We reached for the moon…and made it.” Fayette Bank and Trust Company offered its kind words too. “A Salute to our Astronauts and the men of NSA on this significant event for the United States, and for all mankind,” it read.

Yet, there must have been some apprehension at NASA. It was reported on the day the astronauts landed, that the secretive Russians had landed their own lunar vehicle – only 500 miles away from our space craft. It was later determined that it was unmanned and it was thought to have been an effort to undercut the crowning achievement of the Americans. The scene stealing didn’t work. It was also later determined that their Luna 15 had really crashed landed.
In Washington, there was also a bit of politics that took place that week. The “youthful” head of the The Office Equal Opportunity was trying to deny claims that he was trying to dismantle the agency. A serious claim, seeing that 36 year-old Donald Rumsfeld had only been on the job three months.
A few days later, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin started heading back to earth, in Uniontown, a future Uniontown School Board member, Ken Meadows, was celebrating his own triumph. He’d thrown a no-hitter for his Teener League baseball team at Baily Park.

Ironically, three decades later, Meadows would be involved with another story that had taken place that week. It seems the school board, of which he would later be elected, had begun looking at sites for a brand new Uniontown Senior High School – in Continental No. 1. According the editorial on July 23rd, 1969, Altman and Altman, the new school’s architects had just unveiled it preliminary report and drawing for the new project. The editorial writer was a bit skeptical about the plans, since Laurel Highlands had to pay for similar Altman and Altman charges, without getting a new building at the time.
In Washington, cigarette makers had bowed to pressure and agreed to stop advertising on radio and television.

On July 25th, the world issued a collective sigh, when it was reported that the three astronauts had been returned safely to earth. In fact, it was reported they were in “fine shape.”

Yet, that story was not the main headline that day. It had somehow slipped in importance. The big news was, “Two-Month Sentence Suspended. Ted (Kennedy) Pleads Guilty Leaving Scene.”