LAND O’ LAKES — Although much of the world views the day men first landed on the moon through the lens of history, a Pasco County man recalls the event as he saw it from behind the scenes 45 years ago today.
George Dill, 76, was the public relations director for Pan American World Airways at Cape Canaveral during the 1960s, spanning the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions. Dill worked in the division of Pan American that performed missile tracking, with tracking stations positioned throughout the Caribbean Sea and the south Atlantic Ocean. Its customers included the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).
“During Apollo 11 or any of the missions, when something flew we would track it all the way down to the Caribbean and South Atlantic,” Dill said.
As part of his duties, Dill met celebrities and dignitaries who came to see the launches, making sure they got to their hotels, launch observation sites or wherever else they needed to be.
He saw people from all walks of fame. Newsmen like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley; stars such as Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini and Jonathan Winters; and political figures including Spiro Agnew, Hubert Humphrey and Henry Kissinger.
“Some I just saw,” he said. “Some I was introduced to. Some I shook hands with.”
“I saw (President) John Kennedy at the Cape,” Dill said. “He flew in to tour, and he died a week later in Dallas.”
Apollo 11 brought out people like never before. “It was the biggest thrill of my life,” Dill said. “It was a great joy. We had millions of people lining the beaches to see the launch. I’ve got to tell you, I’ve seen a lot of launches — this one was the big one. It captured the imagination of Americans and, indeed, the world. We we’re going to do something no one had ever done before.
“Anybody who was anybody was there,” Dill said. “Motels were booked up for 400 miles away. It was my job to meet the planes and escort these people to apartments we had. One day the very last person off the plane was a tall, lanky gentlemen and I recognized him and he said, ‘I don’t think we’re acquainted; I’m Charlie Lindbergh.’
Dill, a Tampa native, moved to Charlotte, N.C., in 1975, where he spent about 35 years in advertising. He returned to Florida about four years ago, settling in Land O’ Lakes to be near a niece.
He keeps a cache of memorabilia from his Pan Am days in his home. He has press badges, parking permits, patches, some beta cloth from Apollo 14 — the type of cloth from which space suits were made — and medallions fashioned of the same metal from which space ships were made. He also has a piece of artwork signed by six mercury astronauts. His said his Apollo 11 credentials are his favorite mementos.
Dill longs for the U.S. to revive the spirit of adventure that spawned Apollo 11.
“It was more than a challenge,” he said. “It made reality out of fantasy. It captured the spirit and imagination of the American people.”