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A Durham Man, the Moon, and a Half-century of History

Estimated Read Time:
3 minutes

Over a half century ago, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Since then, long-time Durhamite Jim Wise has witnessed Durham make incredible history.

This October 31 and November 2, we're celebrating two opportunities to recognize historic moments in downtown Durham. On Halloween, the Museum of the Moon, a massive public art exhibit, will kick off over CCB Plaza in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Two nights later, the Durham 150 Closing Ceremony Presented by Duke University and Duke Health will take place at DPAC, celebrating more than 150 years of history and innovation and this place we call home. We tracked down journalist, author, and historian Jim Wise, who witnessed the moon landing as an undergraduate student at Duke and plays a major role in the Closing Ceremony as a member of the creative team.

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Jim Wise was on summer break from college and on a couch in his mother's living room when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. “I remember watching the coverage on TV ... to my generation, it was a big deal; the future was uncertain for men of our age.”

Far from a rocket launch, Durham was just beginning to fill its fuel tanks for a trajectory of innovation ... and Wise — an avid Durham advocate — would be telling Durham's story all the while.

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After graduating from Duke, Wise noted that Durham was a vastly different place.

“I got to Durham in 1966 as a college freshman, and only became aware of the process underway at RTP after I began working after college,” Wise says. Things were moving and shifting — sustainability efforts from air and water quality organizations and businesses were underway, with organizations relocating from the northeast to open offices in the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Building (now the Tower at Mutual Plaza).

Wise says he spent time getting to know folks from all over the economic spectrum over beer at small local bars, but it was beer at the ballpark that he says sparked the revitalization of the downtown area. The Durham Bulls reformed in 1980, just eight years before the cult favorite "Bull Durham" was released in homage to the team. It was Jim Goodmon, though, that saw potential in the surrounding tobacco warehouses that would soon be revitalized. The Durham Athletic Ballpark, he says, "established Durham as a place to be." It was the gumption of city council, too, that overrode public opinion to invest in this social and cultural athletic epicenter when faith in Durham was floundering.

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The Durham we know has come a far way from those first sparks of life. Wise covered business at the News and Observer when he first began to notice craft breweries surfacing, and the first wave of James Beard nominees learning under the watchful eye of renowned chefs at Durham's Magnolia Grill. Southpoint was beginning to bud, and RTP was recruiting exceptional talent into its ranks. The early 2000s put Durham solidly on the map.

There's much to celebrate in the present, as well ... and much to look forward to. Next weekend is a tribute to all of it. Just a week and half from now, downtown Durham will be host to multiple special programming opportunities for the whole family.

British installation artist Luke Jerram has been traveling the globe with his lunar-inspired exhibition, Museum of the Moon, and after casting a scintillating view of the celestial body in China, Australia, India, France, and the UK, the moon is landing here for Bull Moon Rising. The free, family-friendly four-day event from October 31 to November 3 will include moon-centric activities like a reading of popular children’s book “Goodnight Moon” by Mayor Steve Schewel, a Paperhand Puppets Halloween-themed performance, a formal “Moon Ball” gala at Unscripted Hotel, a community dinner with local food truck vendors and tables stretching down Orange Street. (That's not to mention a Friday night cypher with Blackspace, a drum performance by Batalá Durham, and moon movement yoga with Community Power Yoga.)

Then, on November 2, DPAC will be filled with Durhamites, actors, singers, videos and the sounds of an original anthem. The Durham 150 Closing Ceremony will offer reverential looks back at Durham heroes, and opportunities to cast a glance forward to the changemakers who'll be pivotal in the next century and a half here in Durham.

Jim Wise, the narrator and writer behind the closing ceremony, will be a pivotal part of the night. He'll help to craft the stories of the 29 historical honorees we'll celebrate, all while probably feeling a bit melancholy about the near conclusion of a what he's said has been a great year. "Durham 150 has been an opportunity to get re-involved in the community," he says. "It's going to be a great show."

Purchase your tickets to the Durham 150 Closing Ceremony today!