This week the world is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of man’s arrival on the moon with the landing of Apollo 11 and those famous words spoken by my fraternity brother Neil Armstrong (Purdue ‘55), “That’s one small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind.” To many, this anniversary will be a brief marker of the onward advance of human achievement. To some, it will serve as a patriotic touchstone. To me it has a more personal and long-term meaning.
I was seven years old in 1969 when on July 16th, at 5:00 a.m., my parents woke me up to watch the launch of Apollo 11. As I sat there in my pajamas, my family and I watched this amazing event unfold on our small black and white television. Four days later we sat around that same television and watched the first man walk on the moon. To this day I still remember those crackly, fuzzy, pictures coming from both Houston and the moon, and I can still hear Walter Cronkite’s voice providing the narrative. Apollo 11 sparked in me a lifetime interest in space exploration.
You see, as a seven-year old I had become a space and NASA fanatic. I had been cutting out and collecting newspaper articles about the moon shot for weeks leading up to the landing on July 20th. I had carefully pasted each of these articles in a make-shift scrapbook made of paper from brown grocery sacks, and had followed the most minute details of the astronauts and the Apollo 11 mission. I’m sure I read about the display that had been set up at the Indiana Theta chapter house at Purdue University, but at that age I had no idea what a fraternity was. I followed Apollo 11 and all the subsequent Apollo missions throughout the years, like all fans of the space program are prone to do. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, my Apollo 11 scrapbook was lost, misplaced or thrown away. I’ve thought about it from time to time and wondered how it would look now through the eyes of a 47-year old.
11 years later when I went through Rush Week at the University of Utah, and had narrowed my choice of fraternity down to three, my decision to join Phi Delta Theta was impacted by the opportunity to join the same fraternity as quality men like Neil Armstrong, Lou Gehrig (Columbia ’25) and J. Willard Marriott (Utah ’25). If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.
I have had several experiences where my interest in the space program and membership in the fraternity have intersected. While working for the fraternity as a Chapter Consultant in the 1980’s, I was with the brothers of Pennsylvania Theta at Penn State University watching the launch when the Challenger exploded during lift-off. I have been inside a satellite testing capsule at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech in Pasadena. I have watched the shuttle launch of Phi Astronaut Jon McBride (West Virginia ‘64). I have met F. Story Musgrave (Syracuse ‘58) several times, and been inspired by his work on, and pictures of, the Hubble Space Telescope. Brother Armstrong’s first steps on the moon helped pave the way for all of these subsequent achievements in space. And like many Phis, I have marveled at the Phi Delt pin and flag that he took with him to the moon and, soon after his return, presented to the Fraternity where it is now on permanent display at General Headquarters in Oxford.
What has meant the most to me, however, is that Brother Armstrong is a true and proud member of Phi Delta Theta, not just one of those members’ who “was” a Phi Delt during their undergraduate years and hasn’t done much since. When I think of him, at the age of 39, serving as Commander of Apollo 11 and using limited and precious cargo space to take his Phi Delt badge and flag with him, I am amazed. He didn’t have to take his badge with him – he chose to. He chose to take Phi Delta Theta to the moon and back. Stories abound about Brother Armstrong returning over the years to Purdue during Homecomings, football games, alumni weekends, etc and being a regular visitor at the Indiana Theta chapter house, just like any other alumnus, except he isn’t any other alumnus, he’s Neil Armstrong. It is well known that he is rarely willing to talk about Apollo 11, and when he returns to his chapter house he won’t talk about the moon, but he will gladly talk and share stories about his time as a Phi Delt undergraduate. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that some of his stories are enhanced just like most alumni stories tend to become over time.
To me, Brother Armstrong’s actions as a gentleman best represent Phi Delta Theta’s values. He could have easily taken credit for, and boasted about, being the first man on the moon. He could have cashed out with book deals, movies, speaking engagements, selling his signature and likeness on t-shirts and gadgets, etc. – but he didn’t. Instead, he returned to Ohio and became a professor at the University of Cincinnati and proceeded to touch the minds of young people for nearly forty years. He has acted with class, humility, and a sense of purpose.
I can understand his reticence about talking about the moon shot, because while all of the attention is often focused on him as the “first,” the achievement of his first steps was really the success of thousands of unnamed and unrecognized men and women. In a day where too many of our “heroes” and “celebrities” overextend their stay and/or their own sense of worldly importance, Brother Armstrong had the class and humility to simply and quietly leave the stage and do something important and substantive. His actions have always reflected those of a true “Gentleman Phi.”
I have never met Brother Armstrong nor is it likely I will ever have that opportunity, but I have always been thankful for the impact that he and his colleagues had for mankind and for the interest in the space program that they sparked in me as a young child. And as a Phi I have always felt a strong sense of pride in knowing that Brother Armstrong and I signed the same document, The Bond of Phi Delta Theta, and share the same letters, rituals, secrets and values that are Phi Delta Theta.
Plus, it’s just very cool that he’s a Phi.
Scott Mietchen is a 1984 graduate of the University of Utah where he earned both his B.S. and MPA. He has served the Fraternity as a chapter consultant, chapter adviser, house corporation president, province president, delegate to the NIC and member of the General Council from 1994-2000 and 2004-Present. He currently serves as General Council Treasurer. Professionally Scott is President of Fund Raising Counsel, Inc. (FRCI), the oldest fundraising consulting firm in the Intermountain West. Prior to joining FRCI, he served as Vice President for University Advancement at Utah State University. Scott, his wife Lisa, and their children, Abby (15) and Alex (12) live in Salt Lake City.