With all the news about Felix Baumgartner’s record-setting space jump from 128,100 feet above the earth this month, my thoughts turned to Joseph Kittinger, who had held the record for the longest (make that highest) skydive dating all the way back to 1960. While Mr. Baumgartner’s jump was an amazing feat, to me it underscored just how spectacular the first space jump was. But why should the second person to cross the finish line be any less valued than the first? In the interest of fair play, here’s my list of “Top 3 Super Achievers in a Supporting Role.”
As the first man out of the capsule in July 1969, Neil Armstrong achieved immortality as the first human to walk on the moon. The second man out, Buzz Aldrin, will certainly be remembered as a hero, but you have to wonder what went through his mind when the NASA bigwigs designated Armstrong as mission commander. Similarly, Michael Collins task was to remain in orbit as the pilot of the command module, while his colleagues on the lunar landing module boldly went where no men had gone before. So close, yet so far.
Having second billing on a movie marquis may not be as big a deal as being second to walk on the moon, but Ginger Rogers, who danced across the silver screen with Fred Astaire in 10 musical comedy movies from 1933-1949, deserves a place on the list of famous #2s. You don’t have to be a dance fan to recognize the artistry of the complex routines flawlessly executed by the Astaire-Rogers duo. But you do have to hand it to Ms. Rogers for an added level of difficulty. In talking about Mr. Astaire, who gained distinction as the world’s greatest dancer of the day, cartoonist Bob Thaves noted, "Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards...and in high heels!"
Perhaps my favorite “almost famous” record-setter is Mr. Tenzing Norgay, the Tibetan mountaineer who guided New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary up the world’s highest mountain in May of 1953. When asked why he chose to climb Mount Everest (29,029 feet), George Mallory (who died in a 1924 attempt to summit the mountain) famously responded, “Because it’s there.” As the Sherpa (in some ways a synonym for #2) for this record-breaking event, Mr. Norgay’s fame was initially overshadowed by the attention given to Sir Hillary. Today, he is regarded as a legendary hero. If Mr. Hillary were asked, “How was it possible?” he might have responded, “Because Tenzing Norgay was there.”