John Glenn was the most celebrated American hero of the past 60 years, and he never lost his small-town Midwestern roots.
The first American to orbit the Earth died Thursday, at 95. In addition to his exploits, he was a four-term U.S. senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate. The decorated pilot in World War II and the Korean War was one of the seven original Mercury astronauts. In 1962, aboard Friendship 7, he circled the globe three times; he went back in space in 1998, when he was 77.
His first journey was at the height of the Cold War, when the Russians had leaped ahead in space, a source of both national embarrassment and worry over security concerns. Glenn’s flight began to reverse these fortunes, and Americans fell in love with his clean-cut charm.
There was a tumultuous ticker-tape parade in New York in 1962 — there was another in 1998 — and he was embraced by President John F. Kennedy, who encouraged him to go into politics.
He was elected to the Senate representing Ohio, and served four terms. He sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1984, but ran a poor campaign and lost to Walter F. Mondale.
A man of great integrity, the one discordant note was when he was ensnared in the “Keating Five” savings-and-loan ethics scandal. He was exonerated.
In the Senate, he was a moderate Democrat and a strong advocate for the space program; his background as a war hero made it impossible to paint him as soft. During the Korean War, his wingman was the baseball great Ted Williams. The Red Sox slugger, a gruff, political conservative, revered Glenn, considering him a superman fighter pilot and exemplary human being.
The two men, the profane Williams and the squeaky clean Glenn couldn’t have been more different. Glenn would swear on occasion.
We would see the Glenns every Christmas season in Vail, Colorado. Once, at a party, some conservative Republicans were lamenting America’s weakness and said we needed another Douglas MacArthur. They asked Glenn what he thought of the general: “I’m glad Truman fired his ass,” he said, referring to the president’s dismissal of MacArthur for insubordination.
Glenn was a proud Marine, but a devout believer in civilian control of the military.
Raised in New Concord, Ohio, he married his high school and college sweetheart; they enjoyed a 73-year storybook romance. Annie Glenn is as special as her husband. She stuttered so badly that she couldn’t answer the phone while he was a national icon. She overcame the speech impediment, and worked to help others do the same.
We experienced the special Glenn generosity. My son, who idolized him, was severely injured in 1998. When he came home from rehabilitation, unable to read, I thought a nice Christmas present would be a picture book of Glenn’s trip in space that fall. I asked his Senate office if he would autograph it.
Minutes later, the senator called, “What happened to Jeffrey?” After I explained, Glenn wanted to know why we hadn’t told him. “Well, senator, you were in space,” I replied.
The next morning, Glenn arrived at our house with the book and spent an hour gently encouraging Jeffrey.