Annie Glenn, the lifetime companion and the wife of national icon John Glenn, has been a steadfast alter ego for her hero husband, but she hasn’t spent her entire life living in his shadow.
In fact, many perceive her as a luminary in her own right.
For more than five decades, Annie wrestled with the cumbersome burden of a severe stutter, which pulled apart and severed her speech. With the everyday experience of 85 percent of her words getting hung up, she knew every time she opened her mouth something could, and usually did, go awry.
She lived in mortal fear of the simple tasks most people take for granted – using the telephone, taking public transportation and going shopping. After many years of failed therapy, Annie discovered a program in the 1970s that helped her eliminate faltering speech.
The metamorphosis that followed allowed her to blossom into a champion for those with communication disorders. Now she publicly shares her heart-rending, tear-producing personal story in order to draw attention to these little understood speech predicaments.
She is an adjunct professor with the Speech Pathology Department at The Ohio State University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science. And since 1987, she has presented a national award, appropriately named “The Annie,” to the person recognized by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) who best exemplifies “Mrs. Glenn’s own invincible spirit.”
In 2009, Ohio State awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Public Service to recognize her work on the behalf of children and others. And, accompanied by her husband at OSU’s opening football game several months later against Navy, she became one of a privileged few to dot the “i” of the Ohio State Marching Band’s Script Ohio formation.
Not only does Annie lecture graduate students, she also maintains ongoing contact with young people inflicted with a stutter, said JoAnn Donohue, the assistant clinic director of the Speech Pathology Department.
“She is very open about her stuttering,” Donohue said. “She is such an inspiration and she has this wonderful ability to communicate on any level, whether it is a four year old or a teenager who is very upset and embarrassed about their speech.”
One such awestruck teen, emerging from a meeting, swore he’d never wash his hand again after Annie shook it, Donohue said.
Every year the Speech Pathology Department hands out the “Annie Glenn Leadership Award” to someone who has displayed innovative and inspirational work in speech/language pathology.
Many describe Annie as a sensitive, humble person, very generous with her time and involvement in community service for communication disorder organizations and other groups.
But most often she is found at her husband’s side. Many years ago Annie put aside a budding music career that included a scholarship to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, in large part to stay close to John.
The couple remains devoted to this day and though both are well into their senior years, neither hesitates to jump in the car for a long trip so they can spend more time together. That unwavering faithfulness does not go unnoticed.
“They are inseparable, though she is sometimes quiet,” said Deborah Merritt, the first permanent director of the John Glenn Institute of Public Service & Public Policy at Ohio State. “Students hear that they literally met in a playpen and they wonder if they can find a soul mate in their lives.”
Despite her restrained demeanor, Annie shares her husband’s dedication and interests, Merritt said. But she really lights up and her empathy and generosity shine through when she meets a new person, said Merritt and others echoing that description.
“She takes an interest in everyone she meets,” Merritt said. “When she shakes hands with people you get a sense that she really cares about them.”
Her tenacious spirit provides the glue that has held her family together, especially during long stretches when Glenn was serving his country as a combat pilot and test flight aviator, and later as an astronaut and politician.
Like many others, Paul Tipps, a long time friend and political advisor to the Glenns, has been astounded by her tenacity. Not only did she grapple with severe stuttering, but she also willingly chose a life with a husband who regularly risked everything for his country, with her full support.
“Here’s a woman keeping the family together and everything normal and she’s totally supportive of him to keep his commitment to his country,” Tipps said. “Think how strong willed a person has to be to do that.
“She is as much of a hero as John Glenn is and I don’t say that gratuitously,” Tipps said. “He would not have done what he did without her.”
Annie always took intense interest in her husband’s activity. She sat in on Senate briefings and even on training sessions for his 1998 Discovery mission, overcoming her first reaction – “Over my dead body” – when her elderly husband told her of his plan to return to space.
Dale Butland, Glenn’s long time press secretary and political advisor, called her “the absolute rock” of the family.
“A lot of people on the staff thought she was the most natural politician in the family,” Butland said.
He recalled a presidential campaign in the 1980s when the Glenns and other white politicians were at a black church in Cleveland as the choir belted out gospel tunes.
“Annie was moving in time to the music, clapping her hands and looking like she was part of the choir,” Butland said. “A lot of the while male politicians looked kind of stiff.
That’s the quality about her, she immediately has connection with people.”
Perhaps not widely known, both Glenns share a talent for singing, Butland said. What is clear is their harmonious, long-lasting relationship that has stood the test of time and historic and traumatic events.
“She has been enormously and completely supportive of everything he has ever done,” Butland said. “That’s not to say that she does not have a mind of her own. And she doesn’t mind speaking her mind at times.”
Annie was 3 and John was 2 when they first met in New Concord in 1923, though neither recalls those early days. Their parents, Homer and Margaret Castor and John and Clara Glenn were friends and the two grew up together as playmates.
In writing about his wife, Glenn said that “. . . we practically grew up in the same playpen. We never knew a time when we didn’t know each other.”
As the two entered high school, their pairing often became the normal course of events. Glenn wrote many years later: “Somewhere in my teens I took a second look at Annie and liked what I saw.”
Toward the end of high school, the couple discussed marriage and even toyed with the idea of eloping to Kentucky, though the talk never got beyond the romantic notion stage
Both enrolled in Muskingum College, where Annie majored in music. Although she played trombone and piano, she grew to love the pipe organ and developed her skill to the point of receiving a scholarship offer from the Juilliard School.
But with the beginning of World War II and John’s proposal of marriage in March 1942, she decided against a potential musical career. The couple was married more than a year later on April 6.
Annie gave birth to son David in 1945 and daughter Lyn in 1947. Annie was the stay-at-home parent and family guide during Glenn’s days as a combat pilot in World War II and the Korean War, a test pilot and even later when he entered the Mercury space program.
Glenn, in public speeches and in his writing, clearly recognizes the contributions Annie made to the family and to the success of his own careers.
He wrote about his life as a Marine in his 1999 memoir.
“ . . . she accepted uncomplainingly the life of that decision - not only the frequent moves and the scramble for housing that each new move required, but the dangers inherent in flying and the possibility that I would go back into combat,” Glenn wrote.
Glenn remembered how Annie sobbed with relief during their first conversation after he returned to earth in his Friendship 7 capsule in 1962. She had been told the craft’s heat shield might fail, causing total incineration of the capsule. Glenn had lost contact with controllers for five minutes when he reentered the atmosphere.
Annie could also be prone to display her own strong will, such as the time she refused to meet with then Vice President Lyndon Johnson before the Mercury flight because he wanted to drag a herd of reporters into the Glenn home.
Despite her crippling stuttering problem, his wife always did what she had to do to make things work, Glenn noted.
“Once more it meant that we would face uncertainty, and she would be at home waiting for the outcome,” Glenn wrote. “I knew too, that her speech continued to make life more of a burden for her than it was for many other people, and that I could have alleviated that for her if I had been around more.”
That resilience still provokes expressions of amazement from people like Herb Asher, the first interim director of OSU’s John Glenn Institute.
“When you know her life story and her problems with stuttering and you hear the adjustments they had to make, you just say ‘Oh my goodness, how did she get through it?’” said Asher. “I can’t imagine what she went through in terms of being in the public eye, not being able to participate like you and I, and overcoming that.”
Annie’s speech problems forced her to adopt many strategies over the years to cope publicly. She wrote out directions for cabs or busses and descriptions of items she wanted in a store. The telephone was “an instrument of the devil” and the family always ensured a neighbor was near in case of an emergency when Glenn was gone.
Like others who stutter, Annie was not immune to the cruel jokes and laughter at her expense. But she stood her ground, a truth well recognized by her husband who wrote:
“I saw Annie’s perseverance and strength through the years and it just made me admire her and love her even more,” Glenn wrote. “It takes guts to operate with a disability; I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do all the things that Annie did so well.”
After many years of failed treatments, Annie was in her 50s when she learned about the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke, Va.
While other programs treat stuttering as an emotional or psychological issue, Hollins sees the condition as a physical disorder, and therapists work with patients to isolate the particulars of speech muscle movements, said Dr. Ronald Webster, president and founder of the institute.
Annie was a model student during the three weeks of the 11-hour per day classes she took in 1973, and the treatment vastly improved her speech, Webster said. In a final exercise, she called Glenn at home and told him that for the first time in her life she had gone shopping and was able to ask for things.
In 2015, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association gave the annual Annie award to Annie Glenn. The Annie recognizes an individual who demonstrates Mrs. Glenn’s spirit by making a positive impact on those with communication disorders. This video was produced for the ASHA Convention Awards Ceremony.
In his memoir, Glenn wrote that he had never heard her speak so many words without a single pause. Their lives were transformed.
Glenn recalled one of her first sentences upon returning home. “John, I’ve wanted to tell you this for years. Pick up your socks.”
Now Annie provides insight and inspiration to those with similar disabilities or to those studying to help the afflicted.
Through ASHA and the former National Council of Communications and Disorders, Annie has presented “The Annie” for more than two decades, giving the first award to actor James Earl Jones. In 2009, the recipient was Vice President Joe Biden.
Annie’s involvement at OSU’s Speech Pathology Department has made a big difference for students, said Rebecca McCauley, a professor and chair of the graduate studies committee at the Department of Speech and Hearing Science.
“She is incredibly inspirational to students, many who have not had that much contact with people who stutter,”
McCauley said. “Her influence is quite huge when speaking to students who are just getting into the field.”
While she’s inspired many with communication disorders to seek treatment, her caring personality goes way beyond disability issues, said Cheryl Brown, widow of former Ohio Attorney General Bill Brown.
The Glenns have been long time friends of the Browns and Cheryl’s husband had a special connection to Annie due to his childhood stuttering handicap.
“I saw how difficult it was for her early on and I saw the improvement she made,” Cheryl said. “She has this incredible ability to not lose focus on a person she is talking to for as long as that person wants to talk.”
And Annie was there for Cheryl after her husband died, staying in regular contact while other friends have faded away.
“Her biggest gift to me was her strength of character because I was flat out when Bill died,” Cheryl said. “She, too, is an American hero.”