“How hard is it to have a dance??” That was the question put to me at the end of 1969. I was a 34 year old engineer for TWA, and certainly the question seemed simple, when I considered some of the weightier problems I had to deal with in the airline industry. I was being asked to chair the 18th Annual Airline Ball, which was a combined effort of the 13 airlines that served the Kansas City area, and to see that the employees who attended had a good time. Sure I’d do it! This was a piece of cake and could be fun.
The first step was to get some history on this event from past years and then use all the good ideas and discard the junk! In my reading, I found the dance was generally held at the Muehlbach Hotel, usually in early fall, and that it was a duty to honor an “aviation man of the year.” I looked at the list of former honorees, and found that the Ball had honored a couple of newspaper people, a trucking executive, a former mayor and various other people that I had difficulty finding any relationship to the airline industry…let alone Kansas City aviation.
I checked around the area for some folks I knew liked to party. I asked Bill, Jackie and Fran if they would like to join me in this rather meager endeavor of setting up the Airline Ball. This one would either be the best one or the last Airline Ball. All three said yes….no big deal!!! I launched into my overview of what the Ball had been, and mentioned that “rather than honoring some politician, we really needed to honor someone who had done something for aviation……someone like…. Neil Armstrong.”
Let me say here that this was a flippant remark, made only because Mr. Armstrong had just recently landed on the moon and changed aviation forever. But my cohorts did not see it as a “flippant remark”, but rather as a brilliant idea. Sure, easy for them to say! I noted that I was really only kidding, because I had recently read that Mr. Armstrong was receiving over 200 invitations PER DAY to appear at various functions.
The members of the committee said it couldn’t hurt to ask since there were some ties between NASA and TWA.
The meeting broke up with me promising to look into the possibilities. We had about ten months, so we could go to a backup honoree if necessary. I first went to the VP of Kansas City Operations, and told him of my frivolous plan. Well, he liked it too, and said he would call his counterpart down at Cape Kennedy and see if he had any favors he could call in from the NASA people. A week or so later, the VP got a call and said it would be easier to get the President to come to Kansas City!!! Armstrong was being totally insulated by NASA. At this point in time, he was probably the most famous, most sought after person in the world!
By this time, I was looking at this as a challenge of a lifetime. I had always been able to write a pretty good letter, so why don’t I try the direct approach? I crafted a letter that basically said that after much consideration, the Kansas City Airlines Association (a name I made up for the letter) had named Mr. Armstrong Aviation Man of the Decade! Now, how could anyone turn down that title????
I figured only one person had told me no…. and then I had another thought. Members of Congress have enormous power and influence, and I had a college classmate who was a member of Congress from Illinois. So I called him and told him what I had in mind. After several Hmmm, Hmmmm, Hmmmms, he said that he would do whatever he could do. I promised him that he could attend the Ball as my guest….(big deal, but worth a try! After all, I did work for an airline.)
The committee got together again in April and we decided to have the Ball in mid-October, which gave us six months to pull this thing off. Sub-committees were set up. A committee to contract a hotel ballroom, one to sell tickets, a committee to get printing and mailings done, someone needs to sign up a band, a group to select a queen for the Ball….every Ball has a Queen!! That should do it….I thought. Was I ever wrong!!
The very next day I received a letter from NASA, confirming what I had already heard…that Mr. Armstrong receives over 200 invitations each day to appear somewhere, and that no way in my lifetime would Neil Armstrong appear in Kansas City. It took them four single spaced paragraphs to say this….but that was the message.
I talked to the VP at TWA to give him the bad news. He felt we should go ahead with the premise and honor Mr. Armstrong in absentia. Sort of like kissing your sister... but I still hadn’t heard from my congressman friend from Illinois. We still had some time.
Then a strange thing happened. I was reading the Sunday edition of the Kansas City Star, and saw a story about an apartment complex grand opening that day. The ribbon cutting honor would be given to Congressman Larry Winn of Kansas, who was a Chairman of the House NASA Appropriations Committee. Was this Devine Intervention or what? It didn’t take me long to realize this guy held the purse strings for NASA!!!!! Needless to say, I headed to Kansas for the ribbon cutting ceremonies!
As I walked around the apartment complex area, I felt like an animal stalking its prey. When I saw Congressman Winn was available, I struck! After some small talk, I told him what we wanted to do, and how we had met nothing but stone walls so far. He looked at me for some time, wondering if I had just escaped the looney bin, then said, “Did you say this Ball was going to be held in mid-October?” Yes, I said.
“That is just 3 weeks before the General Election.” I again agreed.
“You know” he said, “this would be a real political plus for me.” I continued to nod my head as though I had just gotten out of the looney bin. He was getting a real fire in his eyes. “The first thing you must do is get your college friend out of the loop. I will take the lead on this and will see if I can’t get ‘Neil’ here for you.” You have to be impressed when someone refers to the first man on the moon as “Neil.”
I left the ribbon cutting ceremony feeling like I had a new friend. But I still had other irons still in the fire. TWA in Washington, DC was talking to NASA, and told me they would have an answer by mid July. Mid July came and went with a “They’re still thinking about it.” I did call my congressman friend from Illinois and thank him for what he did, and he said the idea was good, but I didn’t understand how things sometimes go in Washington. What an understatement that was!!!
It was looking more and more like we would be honoring Mr. Armstrong in absentia! We printed tickets, stationery and posters with his picture on them. We still needed an orchestra, and a master of ceremonies. We prepared to have an Airline Queen Contest, with some of the best looking ladies in the area. Now we needed judges for the contest. It became apparent that there are more things to putting on a dance than I had originally thought!! The only thing we didn’t have was a guest of honor!!!
Next I received a call from the TWA Washington office saying Neil Armstrong will not be pressured into coming, but they feel now that we must build the event around him, regardless if he comes or not.
The committee met in September and decides to press on as though Mr. Armstrong will be here. This really got things rolling. The various airlines, thinking things were looking up, began donating door prizes, such as trips to India, trips to London, Paris, Rome, Bangkok, and several to domestic locations. The hotels jumped in and offered accommodations all over the country as door prizes. Then TWA at Cape Kennedy donated 1000 astronaut dolls and flags for table
decorations. They also sent a four foot replica of the Apollo 11 rocket for the head table, which I envisioned having Mr. Armstrong sign, and then give it away as the grand prize. But I still didn’t have anyone to sign it!!!
Luckily, Fran had a friend who knew someone in the musicians union, and she landed a 17 piece orchestra and singer. I should have asked what this cost, because if we can’t sell tickets to a Ball with a non-existent honoree, we will be in a world of hurt!
I received a call from Congressman Winn in late September saying to not lose hope (easy for him to say!) and keep my eyes open. I let the comment go by and I thanked him for the call……but what did he mean?? A couple of days later, I read in the Kansas City Star that President Nixon was going to speak at Kansas State University and that he would be accompanied by the Kansas congressional delegation. Hmmmm.
The next day I got a call from Mr. Winn, who after some small talk, said “Oh, and by the way, your damn airline ball was a big topic of conversation on Air Force One yesterday, and I can tell you that Mr. Armstrong will be in Kansas City by Presidential Directive!!!!” I think I went into some form of a coma, since I could not even reply for several seconds. I know this is America, and wonderful things can happen here, but how could a lowly airline engineer get involved in a project that ultimately the President of the United States would make the final decision???? But it happened, and I thought the battle is over and everything is coming up roses.
How wrong I was!
The euphoria of the moment lasted for about an hour. Now we had to get all of the “little” things moving. Call the committee…..tell them the good news, and then go into panic mode and do all those other things needed for, what was to be a piece of cake dance. What about a proper hotel room? And airline tickets to Kansas City……from where??? I don’t even know where he will be on that day! I’ll need a limo to get him from the airport to the hotel. What about astronaut oriented table decorations that NASA was going to donate?
A very talented mechanic, Darrell Southern, said he would carve a three foot trophy depicting the evolution of aviation which we can present to Armstrong at the Ball. (It turned out to be a masterpiece and has been donated to the Smithsonian by Armstrong.) That takes care of the memento for him!
We set up a Queen of the Ball contest, and asked each airline to send a representative to the TWA Training Center for the contest. We enlisted the aid of Kansas City Chiefs players Johnny Robinson, who thought he should be paid to look at pretty girls and Gerry Mays. Mays said he would look at pretty girls at no charge, and would talk to Robinson. Mays explained to Robinson that it wasn’t like getting hit by a linebacker…it was just looking at girls. Robinson capitulated!
I’ll need a police escort for the limo. Better call the KCPD. I told the police captain what was going to happen, and to say he was excited about the situation, would be an understatement. Then I told him I didn’t have much money for expenses, and he said, “no problem, I’ll ask for volunteers.” Over 20 officers volunteered for duty to escort our honoree! A limo service said they would donate a car for this event. The Muelhbach said they would discount the Presidential Suite for Mr. Armstrong. This was getting easy!!!
Then I got a call from Mr. Armstrong’s office. They informed me that I would be responsible for Mr. Armstrong’s safety, and I proudly told them that I already had twenty motorcycle officers volunteering to escort him the one mile from the airport to the hotel. Oh, they said, Mr. Armstrong doesn’t want a police escort!!
WHAT????? How can I be responsible for his security and not have a police escort. That was my problem, I was told. And also, he doesn’t like to ride in limos, and will rent a car. Again, I went into a catatonic state. This was going so well, and then…….. Time to call Congressman Winn!
I explained the situation, and Mr. Winn said he would call NASA and tell them he would pick Armstrong up at the airport. I suggested we could have unmarked police cars escort him, if my police captain friend was amenable to the change. (He was, especially when I invited him and the escorts to be my guests at the Ball!)
Then I got a call from the Protocol Office in Washington. I didn’t know there was such an animal, but I was learning a lot in a very little time. They told me that I had to follow all the rules of an event as though it was being held in Washington, since there would be political dignitaries in attendance, as well as corporate leaders there. Who sits where seemed to be the big issue. I knew there would be several VP’s from TWA coming in from New York, and naturally they wanted me to seat them at Mr. Armstrong’s table. So did the Mayors in attendance, and the Congressmen and other VIP’s. Oh, and my wife wanted to sit with him too!
The Washington Protocol Office said that the master of ceremonies should be there, the host, not me, but Congressman Winn and his wife, and award presenters. I was in trouble again….. we had six presenters The table held eight people… now what? We chose two couples by lot and hoped nobody noticed.
The Ball is going to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the Muehlbach with seating for 1000 people. The Ball was sold out in less than a week! The logistics of storing all the things that had been donated to the Ball became monumental. Where does one put 1000 six inch astronaut figurines, and 1000 flags, and fifty some very valuable door prizes, and a four foot model of a Saturn rocket? Not to mention the programs and placemats and tickets. We solved that one by sending everything to the hotel manager. He wasn’t terribly happy, but was beginning to realize this Ball was becoming an Event!
As we got closer to October 23, 1970, the requests for tickets and requests to present began to get out of hand. Both Kansas City mayors wanted to present Keys to the City. OK. TWA has an award that is considered very prestigious, and wanted the Sr. VP to present….my boss, OK. The main presenter was going to be Larry Winn who would present the sculpting by Darrell Southern…definitely OK! Some smaller presentations were rejected for time constrains.
The Ball was just about set. The dancing would start at 7:30, and Armstrong and Congressman Winn would arrive at the hotel at 7:45 and go to his suite for a press conference. At 9:00 he would come down to the ballroom and be seated. Then he would crown the queen, and the get all the awards and his evening would end around 11:00.
Wrong again, Tonto!
The good Congressman picked Armstrong up at the downtown airport and was escorted by 4 stealthy unmarked police cars to the hotel. I was at the door to meet them and just about lost it when I saw Armstrong alight from this car literally covered with “Vote for Winn” bumper stickers! Hardly a limo ride! I introduced myself and the three of us left for the suite and news conference.
That part went well…. I’m sure Armstrong had been asked these same questions a thousand or more times, but he had all the answers. When the media left, Mr. Winn asked me to brief Armstrong on what was going to happen at the Ball. I told him there were over 1000 people down in the ballroom and the first thing we would like him to do is accept the Keys to the Cities of Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas from the respective mayors. To this, Armstrong stated, “I don’t accept keys to cities!” Mr. Winn, in a rather stern way said, “Neil, just stick them in your pocket.”
Marching on, I said the next thing on the agenda is to crown the Queen of the Ball, and have a short dance with her, to which he said, “I don’t like to crown queens and I don’t like to dance!” WHAT??? I look at Mr. Winn, who said, “Don’t worry about that, I like to dance with queens.” It should be noted that Mr. Winn has a bum leg, but he doesn’t let it bother him.
I am becoming shell shocked, but I continue by telling him there will be some awards presented and named the VIPs that will want shake his hand. He took a deep sigh and grudgingly said “OK.”
If I ever have anything to do with choosing the first man on Mars, I will require him to be a people person….. Mr. Armstrong was an engineer.
Now knowing his feeling about being around people, maybe it was just Kansas City people, I hesitated, but said, “There are a lot of people down there who would like your autograph, but I don’t imagine you want to do that either.” To which he said, “No, that’s no problem as long as they don’t get unruly.” That really threw me, but I promised there would be a single line to get autographs.
We left the suite and went down to the Imperial Ballroom. The place exploded when we walked in!! I felt that some of it had to be for me… for all the heartache I had gone through….but no, it was all for our honored guest! The mayors made their presentations, the prestigious awards were given, the sculpting was taken with some interest, and then he sat there for two hours and signed autographs! The door prizes were unbelievable with trips and lodgings all over the world. The orchestra was great! At the end, many people came up to me to tell me what a wonderful time they had that evening.
When everyone had gone home, I stood in the middle of the ballroom and thought to myself…. I think this was the best Airline Ball ever, and I hope it won’t be the last one!
It Was !
Gary Lint TWA 1964-1991 Sr Engineer - (Chairman - Airline Ball)