The US space program, the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s historic first step have been much in the news of late. The remarkable feat of landing a man on the moon is rightly celebrated and recalls headier times. However, Neil Armstrong was a reluctant hero, often eschewing the fame that inevitably and relentlessly came his way. I recently read an article in the New York Times about Neil Armstrong’s legacy and the competing visions between what I call his first family and his second family. This brought home that not even the great and good are immune from the more mundane things in life – settling an estate after death.
Neil Armstrong’s first family includes his ex-wife and two adult sons. His first marriage lasted over 38 years before ending in divorce. Neil was married to his second wife, who outlived him, for close to 20 years. From what I have read, Neil was close to his step-children from his second marriage.
When Neil Armstrong died in 2012 after cardiac surgery, his first family donated some of his personal items to museums, but ultimately decided to sell most of his belongings at auction. Sale items ranged from a childhood teddy bear to space memorabilia. According to the New York Times, millions have been raised over the course of several auctions.
Neil Armstrong’s second family is not participating in the auctions and is said to disapprove of the monetization of Neil’s fame and legacy (he was, after all, a reluctant hero who stopped signing autographs when he discovered that they were often sold by the recipient for profit). Many friends have come out in support of Neil’s second family, saying that Neil would not want his legacy to be commercialized (while alive, Neil donated personal documents, working papers, memorabilia and photos to Purdue University).
It is not for me to judge whether auctioning off Neil Armstrong’s personal items and space memorabilia is the right thing to do. Rather, I think another lesson can be learned from the recent controversy: there is always a need to talk about your last wishes with your whole family before you die. While the thought of family meetings may be especially daunting when dealing with blended or multiple families, the long term benefits often outweigh any present discomfort. Clear communication remains the best way to diffuse tension between family members and avoid litigation. Detailed wills are often not enough; there is no substitute for active and respectful discussions between family members.
Houston, Tranquility Base here. Litigation has been avoided.