Houston, We Have a Problem With Neil


Every year New York Life rewarded its top fifty salespeople with an incentive awards trip to a five-star hotel in an attractive global location. The company also provided a similar incentive trip for brokers who sold our products to the membership of large associations. As president of the company, I attended both of these trips and always looked forward to them because I had developed strong personal friendships with many of those who qualified for the trips year after year.

I enjoyed the fact that the company spared no expense in arranging for very well-known, high-profile speakers at the annual awards dinners. In the fall of 2004, the two trips occurred in a fairly compressed three-week time period—one at Lake Como, Italy, and the second on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai. And imagine our excitement as we anticipated hearing from the first two men to walk on the moon: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong in Hawaii and Buzz Aldrin in Lake Como. I was eager to meet both men and hear how it felt to risk their lives as modern-day explorers.

I think, like me, most people remember where they were when they watched Neil and then Buzz set foot on the moon and plant the American flag. I was home for the summer following my junior year in college, and I watched the event at my high school friend Al Shemke’s house—accompanied by music from the epic 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As a mathematics and science student, I recall being totally astounded by the marvel of this remarkable technological achievement. I had only a rudimentary understanding of the complexity of the underlying engineering formulas that were required to accomplish the task but I knew enough to appreciate the enormous risks involved. The courage it must have taken for these men to land on the moon, trusting that they would indeed be able to blast off the moon’s surface and return safely to the command module and then to earth.

What an honor it would be to meet these famous American heroes! I hoped I would get some private time with each of them to ask not only about the technical aspects of the accomplishment but, more importantly, about their emotional and spiritual reactions to the experience.

Buzz Aldrin was the keynote speaker at the first of the two events and he totally captivated and enthralled us by reliving the intense but thrilling moments as the lunar module approached the surface of the moon. He shared the emotions he felt, the visual images that were etched in his mind forever, and his fear as a series of alarms went off within the landing module just as they were approaching the point of no return.

He explained that he and Neil Armstrong had been forced to make a rapid, difficult joint decision on whether or not to abort the landing, which would have meant returning to earth having failed to achieve their mission. With no time to consult Houston, because of the time lag in communications, they instinctively continued. Most observers were never aware of the potential cost of that decision had it been wrong—being left stranded on the moon’s surface with no way to return to the command module.

As he spoke, Buzz’s love for space travel and for the engineering of rocketry was evident. He talked enthusiastically about his recent design work on new rocket-boosting technology, which he believed would allow future astronauts to travel to Mars and beyond. What a pleasure it was to witness the passion and sheer joy this man—who was then in his early seventies—had for his life’s work. I had once heard someone say that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. Buzz Aldrin clearly exemplified that sentiment.

I sat next to Buzz at dinner that evening and was able to witness firsthand the true depth of his enthusiasm for his work. His heartwarming passion was obvious, particularly as he elaborated on some of the more harrowing experiences of the trip. I was also pleased but not surprised to hear that the descent to the lunar surface was indeed an inspirational and spiritual experience for Buzz. One of the amazing but little-publicized facts he revealed to me was that after the moon landing—and while still in the lunar landing module—Aldrin was the first man to take the sacrament of communion on an astronomical body other than earth.

A couple of weeks later, I traveled to Hawaii and greeted our top agents, many of whom had brought along their young children to meet and hear from a man about whom they had learned in their American history classes. For a kid, just meeting an astronaut would be exciting—but to personally meet the first man to set foot on the moon was indeed special. They’d be the envy of all of their friends. That’s not all: from a New York Life perspective, an experience like this would generate added incentive for our agents to qualify for next year’s top sales incentive trip.

I was scheduled to meet alone with Neil Armstrong before the reception to go over the logistics of the evening, after which I would move him quickly to the cocktail reception for photographs and to interact with our anxiously waiting guests. Neil was late, so his time with our guests was already cut short. But that was hardly the only problem.

When Neil finally arrived, I tried to discuss the evening’s events as quickly as possible and move him straight on to the reception. He had aged quite a bit over the thirty-five years since the moon landing—so much so that I honestly didn’t recognize him at first. But what surprised me more was that he was so quiet and sullen. I had expected a confident and sociable man, self-assured by his fame and his immortalized place in history. He made no direct eye contact. Was this due to his bouts with depression that I’d read about in the media?

After introducing myself and telling him what an honor it was to have him as our guest speaker, I showed him where the pre-event photos with each of our guests would be taken. “After that, we’ll move to the dining room to mingle with our invited guests, and then we’ll sit down for dinner,” I explained. I told Neil he would be at the head table seated with our chairman, Sy Sternberg, along with our top two or three agents and their children. “After dessert has been served, you’ll be introduced by Sy and invited to speak.” No reaction. So I continued. “I hope you don’t mind, but during dinner, you’ll likely be interrupted by some children and young adults. They’ll probably ask you to autograph their programs.”

To my utter shock, he declared, “I don’t sign autographs.”

I gathered myself as best I could and responded as tactfully as I knew how. “But, Neil, these kids have heard of you in their history classes; they view you as a true American hero. Many of them will ask for your autograph.”

“I don’t sign autographs,” he flatly repeated. “Please alert the guests before dinner.”

I chose not to argue the point, knowing that our contract with him would never specify something so inconsequential. I spoke to our travel staff and asked them to walk around and get the word out before dinner. I didn’t want to make a public announcement that might evoke an audible negative reaction and perhaps embarrass Neil.

The second sign of trouble came when I told Neil that we planned to leave ten to fifteen minutes after his remarks for questions from the audience. Once again, he floored me. “I don’t do Q & A,” he said. Determined, I assured him we would keep this part short and limit the time, but he stopped me before I could finish. “I don’t do Q & A,” he repeated, exasperated.

By this point I was angry and incredulous but I didn’t press the issue. Instead, I explained that I would come to the podium to thank him after his remarks, and that we sincerely hoped he would stay for a while to interact with any of the guests wishing to stay longer. He simply didn’t react.

But the third and perhaps most astonishing surprise was the nature of Neil’s presentation. My worst fears were realized as he started his inexplicably droning speech.

It was absolutely painful to watch the reactions of our honored guests—the agents and their families—as the first man to walk on the moon lectured about the early exploration of our planet and the first European discovery of Hawaii by British explorer James Cook in 1778.

When would he get to the topic of the moon landing, we all wondered.

He never did. He never even mentioned his historic journey, the Apollo missions, or even that he had been an astronaut. To say this was a disappointment to our top agents and their families would be a huge understatement.

Over subsequent months and years, I often pondered what this disappointing experience had revealed to me about human nature and about extraordinary achievement.

I later discovered that Neil actually had some logical basis for not giving autographs. He had become upset at the extent to which his achievement was being commercialized through the sale of autographs at exorbitant prices, so he decided to prevent that from happening by refusing to sign any further autographs. Perhaps that was honorable, but why hadn’t he explained that to me in our pre-dinner discussion in 2004?

Try as I might, I could not, however, find any logical reason for his refusal to take questions—or for avoiding any mention whatsoever of an achievement that was as broadly known and recognized as almost any event in modern history. As I wondered what I might learn from this negative experience, I was startled to find my own heart changing as my initial anger and disappointment at the experience in Hawaii changed over time to compassion for Neil Armstrong.

Little by little, I learned that Neil had some deep-seated emotional issues that went beyond simple humility—issues that prevented him from more openly discussing his moon-landing experience.

Many children dream of becoming famous and gaining the admiration and respect of thousands, if not millions, but very few ever achieve that status. Ironically, Neil Armstrong was like many of these children—from humble and modest beginnings as the son of a civil service worker in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He could certainly relate to young kids—and he found himself achieving the fame they dreamed of.

I too was raised in a lower-middle-class family. If I hadn’t received a full scholarship, I never would have been able to attend college. I didn’t even begin my insurance career until I was twenty-nine years old, and to ascend to the presidency of one of the largest and most respected Fortune 100 insurance companies so quickly was truly gratifying. I too achieved a success that many fantasize. And as I did, I became all too aware of the risk of becoming arrogant, self-satisfied, and proud.

To avoid these pitfalls takes a lot of awareness, strong commitment, and vigilance. How often I reminded myself that my work was about much more than me or my success—it was a calling. I needed to strive to be a role model for thousands of agents and employees not only through my rapid career advancement, but also through the way I handled it. Success is not for the faint of heart.

Perhaps my experience with Neil Armstrong was a message from God reminding me to remain humble and to avoid pride, arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. But even more importantly it was a message to me about maintaining a level of compassion for others (no matter how famous they might be) who may exhibit inexplicable behaviors and may suffer from anxiety or depression. How insensitive of me not to immediately
recognize symptoms that had also afflicted members of my own family.

My new-found compassion and my reflections on my own temptations regarding pride played a big role in reversing my negative attitude toward Neil. Over time I realized that even if emotional issues were at the root of Neil’s eccentricities, his actions—however frustrating—proved he was a humble and unassuming man. In the end, by angering me on the island of Lanai in 2004, he had actually revealed to me that showing compassionate understanding is far more Christian than being angry or critical.

And avoiding excessive pride is far more important than sharing or promoting one’s personal accomplishments.

I learned very different lessons from Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong—but each remains for me an American hero in his own way.

For Reflection

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
— Colossians 3:12

Human behavior can often seem inexplicable—and when not adequately explained, can cause us to misinterpret both meaning and cause. That happened to me through my unpleasant experience with astronaut Neil Armstrong. But when I later read about his background, I sympathized with him. God gave me that understanding and compassion so I could once again view him as an American hero.

Can you recall situations in which you encountered unusual or inexplicable behaviors of friends, colleagues, or strangers? We all have those experiences, and we often react impulsively with negative responses. Typically we don’t have the time or inclination to try to understand root causes. And unless we’re dealing with a celebrity like Neil Armstrong, we don’t have the ability to learn more through an Internet search ofissues that have been reported in the media.

For that reason, I encourage you to pause before expressing your own confrontational response. I’m glad that I resisted that temptation in my encounter with Neil Armstrong. However, it was much easier for me to bite my tongue when dealing with a famous American hero than it is for me or you to do so when dealing with astranger or even a relative or colleague. In such situations, we need to take the advice of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians, in which he encourages us as God’s people to clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.