John Glenn, American hero, aviation icon and former U.S. senator, dies at 95
An authentic hero and genuine American icon, Glenn died this afternoon surrounded by family at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus after a remarkably healthy life spent almost from the cradle with Annie, his beloved wife of 73 years, who survives.
He, along with fellow aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright and moon-walker Neil Armstrong, truly made Ohio first in flight.
“John Glenn is, and always will be, Ohio’s ultimate hometown hero, and his passing today is an occasion for all of us to grieve," said Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich. "As we bow our heads and share our grief with his beloved wife, Annie, we must also turn to the skies, to salute his remarkable journeys and his long years of service to our state and nation.
"Though he soared deep into space and to the heights of Capitol Hill, his heart never strayed from his steadfast Ohio roots. Godspeed, John Glenn!" Kasich said.
Glenn’s body will lie in state at the Ohio Statehouse for a day, and a public memorial service will be held at Ohio State University’s Mershon Auditorium. He will be buried near Washington, D.C., at Arlington National Cemetery in a private service. Dates and times for the public events will be announced soon.
Glenn lived a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! life. As a Marine Corps pilot, he broke the transcontinental flight speed record before being the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962 and, 36 years later at age 77 in 1998, becoming the oldest man in space as a member of the seven-astronaut crew of the shuttle Discovery.
He made that flight in his 24th and final year in the U.S. Senate, from whence he launched a short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. Along the way, Glenn became moderately wealthy from an early investment in Holiday Inns near Disney World and a stint as president of Royal Crown International.
In one of his last public appearances, Glenn, with Annie by his side, sat in the Port Columbus airport terminal on June 28 as officials renamed it in his honor -- the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.
In addition to his world-famous career in aviation and aerospace, Glenn had a relationship with that particular airport that is likely second to none. Glenn, who turned 8 the month that Port Columbus opened in July 1929, recalled asking his parents to stop at the airport so he could watch the planes come and go while he was growing up in New Concord, 70 miles east of Columbus.
Glenn recalled "many teary departures and reunions" at the airport's original terminal on Fifth Avenue during his time as a military aviator during World War II. He and his wife Annie, who had been married 73 years, later kept a small Beechcraft plane at Lane Aviation on the airport grounds for many years, and he only gave up flying his own plane at age 90.
Privately, this man who had been honored by presidents and immortalized in history books and movies, told friends that for an aviator, seeing his name on the Columbus airport was the highest honor he could imagine.
Glenn, who lived with Annie for the past decade in a Downtown Columbus condo, dedicated his life to public service, devoting many of his later years to Ohio State University, which in 2005 converted the century-old Page Hall into the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy and the School of Public Policy and Management. It is now the John Glenn College of Public Affairs.
“He was very proud of the Glenn College,” said Jack Kessler, chairman of the New Albany Company, a former Ohio State trustee and longtime friend of the Glenns. “It’s a legacy that will carry on his mission toward good public policy.”
While Glenn held office as a Democrat, he wasn’t partisan, Kessler said. “I never heard him say a bad thing about anyone. Some of his best friends were Republicans, and he could work with anyone."
Surrounded by dozens of students striving to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from the institute, Glenn said at its dedication, “If we inspire a few young people into careers of public service and politics, this will all be worth it.”
Remarkably physically fit and energetic, Glenn only began encountering health problems in 2013 when he had a pacemaker implanted and missed some public appearances due to vertigo.
In 2011, he and Annie both had knee-replacement surgery, which kept them from repeating a planned road trip like the impromptu 8,400-mile journey throughout the West they took a year earlier in their Cadillac when she was 89 and he 88.
Raised in New Concord, where he and Annie both went to Muskingum College, Glenn aspired to be a medical doctor, but World War II sidetracked that ambition and launched a life of uncommon achievement and bravery. At age 8, he took his first ride in an open-cockpit airplane and ended up virtually living life in the sky, continuing to fly until 2011 when he put up for sale the twin-engine Beech Baron he had owned since 1981.
“I miss it,” Glenn told The Dispatch in 2012 “I never got tired of flying.”
Glenn flew 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea, where his wingman and eventual lifelong friend was baseball legend Ted Williams. In Korea, Glenn earned the nickname “Old Magnet Ass” due to his skill in landing his airplane under any condition, even after it was riddled with bullets and had blown tires.
Born not far from New Concord in Cambridge on July 18, 1921, Glenn and his parents moved about 10 miles west in 1923 to New Concord. His father was a plumber and his mother a teacher who joined a social group called the Twice 5 Club, which got together once a month. Another couple in the club had a daughter, Annie Castor, who was a year older than Glenn, and the two toddlers often shared a playpen while their parents played cards.
Their relationship evolved into a quintessential American love story, with the spark between them first igniting when they were in junior high school.
“To write a story about either of them, if it doesn’t include the other, then it just isn’t complete,” their daughter, Lyn, told The Dispatch in 2007. She and her brother, David, a California doctor, survive.
John and Annie were married on April 6, 1943, and the next January, as they held each other searching for something to say as he prepared to ship out for combat in the South Pacific, John said, “I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.”
From that day on, she kept a gum wrapper in her purse.
To many with disabilities, Annie became a heroine in her own right as she struggled to conquer near-debilitating stuttering.
For more than half of her life, she counted on others to speak for her, publicly uncommunicative in a world that demanded more from her as her husband’s fame ascended.
Through it all, John stood by Annie, who, in 1973, underwent an innovative treatment regimen that dramatically improved her speech to the extent that she was delivering speeches on behalf of her husband’s 1984 presidential candidacy.
Glenn, who received his pilot's license in 1941, was at home in the sky, soon evident after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and he left Muskingum College to enlist in the Marine Air Corps. In the Pacific, he flew 59 missions over the Marshall Islands.
After being stationed in China and Guam when World War II ended, Glenn was a flight instructor in Texas before being transferred to Virginia. When the Korean War broke out, Glenn applied for combat duty, and flew 90 missions. Overall, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross six times and was awarded the Air Medal with 18 clusters.
After returning from Korea, Glenn became a test pilot. He set a coast-to-coast speed record in 1957, piloting a Navy jet fighter from California to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. In 1959, he was selected as one of the country's first seven astronauts, a historic group immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, the basis for a movie of the same name.
The United States was enveloped in a cold war with the Soviet Union, and after a series of U.S. rockets had blown up, the American psyche was dealt a blow in 1961 when Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and the first to orbit Earth.
The third American in space after suborbital missions by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, Glenn finally equaled Gagarin’s achievement by blasting off on Feb. 20, 1962, after weather and mechanical problems caused his mission to be postponed 10 times.
Crammed into the 7-foot-wide Friendship 7 space capsule atop a 100-foot-tall Atlas rocket loaded with 250,000 pounds of explosive fuel, Glenn launched 160-miles into space, orbiting the world three times at 17,500 miles per hour.
Reflecting many years later, Glenn would say that computers were the greatest technological achievement during his life, but there were none on Friendship 7, and deep into the flight he had to take manual control of the capsule when systems malfunctioned.
As the capsule descended for a watery landing, mission control feared that its heat shield was peeling off. Well past four hours into the flight, Glenn was told of the problem and knew he could be burned alive in an instant (Annie was notified to expect the worst), but the astronaut stayed focused even as fiery pieces of his spacecraft flew by his window.
“You didn’t really have time to think about it,” he told students at COSI Columbus 45 years later. “Long before you actually got to the flight itself, you sort of made peace with mortality."
Safely splashing in the Atlantic Ocean 800 miles southeast of Bermuda, Glenn’s historic flight invigorated the nation and catapulted him into American lore. He addressed a joint session of Congress and rode in a convertible with Annie as 4 million people cheered him in a Manhattan ticker-tape parade.
In 2007, 45 years after his historic orbital mission, Glenn told a Columbus audience how much he longed to return to space right away, only to learn years after leaving the space program that President John F. Kennedy, fearing the worst, secretly had barred him from other flights to spare the country the potential loss of a national hero.
Glenn admitted in that speech that he was jealous in 1969 when fellow Ohioan Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon.
In 1964, only two years after his famous flight on Friendship 7, Glenn ran in the Democratic Senate primary against incumbent Sen. Stephen M. Young. But only six weeks after announcing his candidacy, Glenn dropped out of the race after damaging his inner ear in a bathroom fall, an injury that caused severe dizziness and balance problems. He recovered eight months later.
Glenn ran for the Senate again in 1970, but lost in the primary to Howard M. Metzenbaum, whom he defeated in a rematch four years later. He handily won election that fall over Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk and won re-election by huge margins in 1980 and 1986.
After winning re-election in 1980 by the largest margin in Ohio history, Glenn ran for president in 1984. He was seen as the leading challenger to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale for the Democratic nomination, and was the candidate many considered to have the best chance of defeating President Ronald Reagan in the general election.
But plagued by a disorganized campaign and with a centrist theme ill-suited to a liberal-dominated Democratic primary process, Glenn finished back in the pack in the important Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. He borrowed $2 million to compete in the Southern primaries, but he didn't win a state and dropped out of the race.
The debt remaining from that race, which rose to more than $3 million, became a campaign issue for Glenn in subsequent Senate races and nagged him until 2006 when the Federal Elections Commission finally allowed him to close the books on it after years of chipping away.
The third term of his four in the Senate was dominated by a Senate investigation into allegations that he improperly interceded with S&L regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, who had raised or donated $242,000 to Glenn's political committees. Glenn personally spent more than $500,000 to defend his honor, and the Senate Ethics Committee cleared him of wrongdoing.
“I spend half a million dollars on my defense, and I wouldn't pull back a penny of it,” Glenn said then. “The reason I felt so strongly about it was that it involved my honor, and if I had to sell everything I had and mortgaged the house, I would have done everything I could to see the truth come out.”
In his final year as a U.S. senator in 1998, Glenn was reborn as an astronaut. At 77, he orbited the Earth with six astronauts aboard shuttle Discovery, once again rendering his body and mind to the study of science, providing insight into how the oldest man ever launched into space held up. Glenn, remarkably fit, became an inspiration once again to mankind.
The events of John Glenn’s life, and his footprint on history, are chronicled in countless books and beyond. The Friendship 7 capsule is in the Smithsonian, his papers and memorabilia are archived at Ohio State, and his life with Annie — and much more — are displayed at the Glenn Historic Site in New Concord.