After Neil Armstrong’s death in 2012, Bob Kirk (BSME ’52, HDR ’93) needed a place to grieve. He found it in a visit to Purdue’s campus — to Kirk Plaza, where the statue he commissioned depicts the world’s most famous astronaut as a college student of the 1950s.
Kirk had convinced his limelight-averse friend to agree to the statue in the first place, provided the funding for it and attended its 2007 unveiling.
With Kirk’s own passing in 2017, his niece Peg Reagan recalls an artistic, gracious, brilliant man — a punster with dancing eyes — who “expected the best of other people and of himself.” Retired as chairman of British Aerospace Holdings after a career spent with companies including Litton Industries, Allied Signal Aerospace and CSX Transportation, Kirk was a 1952 graduate in mechanical engineering. Armstrong was a 1955 graduate in aeronautics and astronautics.
“They would have started school at the same time,” Reagan says, “but they didn’t meet at Purdue. Neil’s studies were truncated because of the Korean War. He did go back to Purdue to finish. Bob did four years at Purdue and then went into the Navy. Neil chose the sky, and Bob chose the sea.”
The friendship begins
The moonwalker and the aerospace exec would meet decades later on campus, during the 1990s, when their participation in Purdue’s Engineering Advisory Council coincided. “They instantly became friends,” Reagan says, “fast and true.”
Over the years, both men received honorary doctorates from Purdue (Armstrong in 1970, Kirk in 1993), and both joined the Conquistadores del Cielo (“Conquerors of the Sky”), a private organization founded in 1937 for airline and aerospace executives. They roomed together at the Conquistadores’ annual fall gatherings at a Western ranch, joining in trapshooting, skeet, fast draw and horseshoes.
For Kirk, who Reagan says “lived his life to give back and make the world better,” Purdue was at the top of the philanthropic list — and honoring Armstrong was at the top of the top. He led fundraising efforts for Purdue’s Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering. He also named the directorship of the Birck Nanotechnology Center. But his involvement in the Armstrong statue, to be sited just outside Neil Armstrong Hall near the intersection of Northwestern and Stadium avenues, excited him the most.
The vision comes to life
Made of bronze, the 8-foot-tall, 125-percent-scale statue shows a young Armstrong wearing a windbreaker, a button-down Oxford shirt, cuffed pants and penny loafers. Embedded in the ground next to the statue is an elliptical stone arc resembling a spacecraft trajectory, inscribed: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The arc leads toward molds of 20 lunar footprints, which trail away from the sculpture, suggesting the bounding gait of an Apollo astronaut.
Chas Fagan, the artist who created the statue and surroundings, knew Kirk as the main driver behind the project, a go-between who could relay information from the sculptor to Armstrong and vice versa.
“Bob Kirk was the quintessential engineer,” Fagan says. “He had a desire for me to replicate the precise model of slide rule that Neil Armstrong used at Purdue.” To Fagan’s good fortune, his own father-in-law had the same model — model N4-ES, vector-type LOG LOG, made by Pickett — which Fagan used for reference in fashioning the slide rule that sits beside Armstrong’s likeness, with some notebooks, on a stone plinth.
As for the penny loafers: Should a penny have been included in each shoe? As Reagan tells the story, her uncle said, “You know, Neil and I had a long talk about the penny loafers. You’ll notice, the next time you visit Neil Armstrong Hall and the statue: no pennies! He was too broke at that time!” As was Kirk, Reagan adds.
The legacy lives on
With these best of friends now both laid to rest, the statue lives on as perhaps the most photographed, and most inspirational, landmark on campus. Children clamber on it. Visitors take selfies with it. College students rest themselves, and their backpacks, beside it. Graduates in their mortarboards and gowns pose proudly by it for photos. Each year, thousands of people see the statue for the first time — and ponder what their own giant leaps and life trajectories might be.
And on July 20, 2019, the statue will come into even sharper focus as Purdue Engineering and space enthusiasts around the world celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the man who first set foot on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong.
“Bob Kirk wanted students to know who Neil Armstrong was,” says Amy Noah, Purdue’s vice president for development. “If it weren’t for him, there would be no statue. There aren’t enough ways to remember Bob’s legacy and thank him for his generosity.”
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The statue depicts the world's most famous astronaut, Neil Armstrong, as a college student of the 1950s.
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