Annie Glenn, the lifetime companion and the wife of national icon John Glenn, was the steadfast alter ego for her hero husband but she didn't spend her life living in his shadow.
John and Annie were a strong couple — married 73 years — but while John spent his life in the air and on television, Annie spent hers here on Earth, focused on the people who often go unseen: the disabled.
For more than five decades, Annie wrestled with the burden of a severe stutter, which pulled apart and severed her speech. She was an 85 percent stutter, meaning she would become “hung up on 85 percent of the words she tried to speak, which was a severe handicap,” as John Glenn put it. 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 at Hollins University 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. She publicly shared her heart-rending personal story 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. Since 1987, she has presented a national award, named “The Annie,” an individual who is recognized by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) that best exemplifies “Mrs. Glenn’s own invincible spirit.”
In 2009, Ohio State awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Public Service to recognize her work and humanitarian efforts for adults and children suffering with this debilitating disorder. Several months later, she was accompanied by her husband to OSU’s season opener football game against Navy, becoming one of the privileged few to dot the “i” of the Ohio State Marching Band’s Script Ohio formation.
Annie serves as a guest lecturer for graduate student courses and maintains contact with people afflicted with a stutter,” said JoAnn Donohue, Assistant Clinic Director of the Speech Pathology Department.
“She is very open about her stuttering.” “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.”
Each year, the Speech Pathology Department selects an individual to receive the “Annie Glenn Leadership Award” for displaying innovative and inspirational work in the area of speech/language pathology.
Those who have met Annie, describe her as a sensitive, humble person, who is very generous with her time and involvement in community service for communication disorder organizations, as well as, other groups.
But most often, she was found by her husband’s side. Many years ago, Annie was awarded a scholarship and the opportunity to study music at Julliard School of Music in New York City, but chose to stay close to John.
The couple remained devoted to one another until his death in 2016 and never hesitated jumping into the car for a long road trips to spend more time together. That unwavering faithfulness does not go unnoticed.
“They were 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. She really lights up and her empathy and generosity shine through when she meets a new person and others echo that description.”
“She takes an interest in everyone she meets. 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 away serving his country as a combat pilot and test flight aviator and later as an astronaut and politician.
Like many others, the late Paul Tipps, a long-time friend and political advisor to the Glenns’, was 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,” said Tipps,
“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. 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. He would not have done what he did without her.”
Annie always took intense an interest in her husband’s activities. She attended in on Senate briefings and went to training sessions for the 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.
Butland recalled an event during his presidential campaign in the 1980s when the Glenn’s 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. That’s the quality about her, she immediately has connection with people.”
“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.”
When Annie was 3 years old and John was 2 years old, the two met. Their parents, Homer and Margaret Castor and John and Clara Glenn were friends and the couple 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 toyed with the idea of eloping to Kentucky—but elopement never went beyond being a romantic notion.
Both enrolled in Muskingum College, where Annie majored in music. She played the trombone and piano and also grew to love the pipe organ—developing her skills enough to receive a scholarship offer from The Julliard School of Music.
But, World War II began and John proposed — she declined the scholarship and they were married.
Annie gave birth to son David in 1945, who was followed by their 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 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 display her own strong will. There was a time when she refused to meet with 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, Annie always did what she had to do to make things work.” John Glenn.
“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 who was the first interim director of the 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 to cope publicly. She provided written directions to cab and bus drivers and descriptive lists to store associates. Annie referred to the telephone as “an instrument of the devil” so the family always ensured a neighbor was near in case of an emergency when Glenn was gone.
Annie, like the many others who stutter, was not immune to the cruel jokes and laughter directed toward her, 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 enduring failed treatments, Annie had reached her 50s before learning 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, founder and president of the Hollins Communication Research 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. 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.”
Annie is now able to offer insight and inspiration to those suffering similar disabilities and the students learning to help the afflicted.
In cooperation with the 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 with 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. 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 Glenn’s are 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.” “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.”
Brown indicated that Annie was there for her after her husband died, staying in regular contact while other friends 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.”