John Glenn

Boundless Courage, Limitless Optimism and Unswerving Honor

“If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self interest.”

John Glenn uttered those words on Oct. 3, 1997, the day he announced that he was donating his personal and Senate papers and other artifacts to The Ohio State University.

He said he chose Ohio State because he wanted to create a place that would stimulate young people’s enthusiasm for public service rather than establish a museum that focused only on his own accomplishments and legacy.

Glenn continued his focus on a greater sense of purpose, telling graduates in his 2009 keynote address at Ohio State’s spring commencement ceremony, that “we are more fulfilled when we are involved in something bigger than ourselves . . .”

He knew firsthand the satisfaction that comes from such deep commitments. Glenn’s life had not only bridged a span of breathtaking technological and scientific advancement, but he was at the center of many of them. He was the first American to orbit earth and decades later, at age 77, became the oldest astronaut to travel in space. His commitment to public service led him to join the U.S. Marines as a combat pilot, serve as a United States Senator and in retirement establish the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University.

Glenn, who died December 8, 2016, was considered by many to be one of America’s true national heroes and an international icon.

“The Ohio State University community deeply mourned the loss of John Glenn, he was Ohio’s consummate public servant and a true American hero," said Ohio State University President Dr. Michael V. Drake. "He leaves an undiminished legacy as one of the great people of our time."

“Senator Glenn was a decorated U.S. Marine aviator, legendary NASA astronaut, tireless public servant, and an unparalleled supporter of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State, where he served actively as an adjunct professor until just recently. He was an authentic hero whose courage, integrity, sacrifice, and achievements inspired people, young and old, around the world. Most importantly, he was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. He and his wife, Annie, have been the definition of model citizens. Meeting them was among life’s greatest privileges. Spending time with them was a blessing," said Drake.

“The state of Ohio, the nation and the world lost a hero. We at the Glenn College and The Ohio State University lost a friend,” said Dr. Trevor Brown, dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. "It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the goal of propelling humanity forward through education in his name. We are proud to carry on his legacy of public service by inspiring young people to serve the greater good and to shaping and molding the next generation of public leaders.”

A Brand Redirects Apathy

With 23 years in the military and space program and 24 years as a U.S. senator, the name John Glenn had become a “brand” long before the culture developed a fixation with marquee images or products. That remains a considerable benefit to Ohio State, a fact wholly recognized by former Ohio State President Gordon Gee, even during his first stint as university president.

In a 1996 meeting with Glenn to discuss his future relationship with Ohio State, Gee said the prospect of Glenn donating his papers and artifacts to the university was “like manna.” Gee’s enthusiasm didn’t wane in his second presidential term.

“It was Ohio State’s great good fortune to have his leadership here on campus and to be stewards of his archives.”

Glenn’s passion for civic engagement coupled with an opportunity to kindle a fire within students for civic ideals was evident in his letters and documents from 1997, when he announced his retirement after four terms in the U.S. Senate. Glenn underscored his intent to dedicate his time toward dispelling “the apathy, mistrust and outright cynicism among our young people", which he saw as "a looming danger for the future of the country."

In 1998, when the creation of the John Glenn Institute of Public Service and Public Policy was announced, Glenn reiterated his commitment, pointing out that many older Americans were also apathetic toward their government and politics.

“If this cynicism and apathy are allowed to continue to fester, it will not only be dangerous, but in our democracy it will be suicidal,” Glenn said. “I honestly believe that through this institute, The Ohio State University can be an instrumental part in rekindling the nation’s commitment to public service.”

That vision is now a work in action. The Glenn College today has become a fulcrum for the university and is instrumental in advancing the public agenda at local, state, national and international levels.

“Its twin goals of encouraging citizenship and developing leadership guide numerous educational, research, training, technical assistance and citizen engagement programs,” said former Glenn School director Charles Wise. “And the college's programs are equipping graduates as citizen-leaders or public service professionals to work on a variety of public policy problems.”

Wise called Glenn’s dedication “tireless” and said he constantly provided ideas and counsel to help the school achieve its goals. His commitment to public service was “an inspiration that infused all we did at the Glenn School.”

That energetic involvement and the fact that Glenn maintained an office in Page Hall was a boon that further enriched the academic accomplishments of the Glenn College, said Deborah Merritt, the first permanent director of the Glenn Institute.

“Having the John Glenn name alone would mean a lot for any university and school of public affairs,” Merritt said. “But to have that person actually involved is worth 10 times as much. He was there to give his thoughts and insights and he talked to students.

“Everybody is a bit more inspired when someone like Glenn is around,” she said.

Going for a Pack of Gum

From the start, Glenn intended to go far beyond giving Ohio State his name and artifacts. At an April 21, 1997 meeting with university officials to discuss the institute, Glenn said he wanted the center to be more than just “old junk in a box.” Rather, he sought a “living dynamic thing to attract people to public service at all levels.”

The day he announced the donation of his artifacts to the university, he expressed his views about playing a vigorous role at Ohio State.

“What’s most important to me, though, is that today’s announcement means I will be taking a hands-on approach here at Ohio State University to teach and challenge Ohio’s students,” Glenn said. “I am determined to give back what I can to the young people of today and to share what I have learned.”

That sentiment might be boiled down to one word: commitment. For Glenn it is a word that means everything, said M.J. Veno, his former Senate staff director. “When this guy made up his mind, you can’t change it because he makes a commitment,” Veno said. “That is a common thread to all that he has done.”

“He was motivated by commitment, which is the reason he and Annie had this huge relationship,” Veno said. That faithfulness really cemented itself when both were teenagers. A telling story is the time Annie developed mumps. Glenn trooped over to her home, cut a hole through her bedroom window screen, passed in a radio and kept her company during her illness, Veno said.

The couple had long shared a memorable parting line on the eve of Glenn’s perilous adventures, from the early days when he left to serve as a Marine pilot in the South Pacific in 1944 to more recent times before he departed on the Discovery shuttle mission in 1998.

“I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum,” Glenn would say. To which she replied, “Don’t be long.”

Their spirited relationship remained playful. Don Stenta, the Glenn Institute’s former associate director, remembers watching both Glenns near a dessert table at a Page Hall reception

“They each kept reaching over and taking bite-sized pieces and looking at each other and laughing,” Stenta said.

The two were so inseparable that in 1981 the Ohio Democratic Party gave the “Democrat of the Year” award to them as a couple for their efforts the previous year, said the late Paul TIpps, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman.

Fittingly, Glenn shared the spotlight at Ohio State’s spring 2009 commencement with Annie, who received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree in recognition of her work on behalf of children and others.

Building Blocks

It’s a long road from the tranquil little village of New Concord, Ohio, where Glenn spent his childhood, to one of the largest public university campuses in the nation. Glenn was born in a small white frame house in nearby Cambridge, Ohio on July 18, 1921, to John Herschel and Clara (Sproat) Glenn.

Nicknamed “Bud,” Glenn felt the stirrings of the patriotism that became the bedrock of his life early on when, at age 10, he joined the New Concord town band as a trumpeter. Soon after, his father asked him to accompany him and play “Taps” as an echo melody at a Memorial Day ceremony.

In his 1999 memoir, Glenn shared how that echo version of “Taps” still provokes chills. The patriotic stirrings he first experienced in New Concord, based on the defense of America’s ideals, became an opportunity to fulfill a scared duty and join a joyous adventure, he wrote.

“That feeling sums up my childhood. It formed my beliefs and my sense of responsibility,” Glenn wrote, in a book co-authored by Nick Taylor. “Everything that came after that just came naturally.”

Indeed, patriotism, civics and service are recurrent themes in Glenn’s life. Stoking those civic-minded pursuits was Glenn’s high school civics teacher, Harford Steele, who made the fundamentals of democracy come alive for Glenn.

“You could see how individuals could exercise their beliefs and actually cause change and improvement,” Glenn wrote in his memoirs. “The idea that you really could make a difference stimulated me . . . Mr. Steele’s course ignited a fire in me that never did go out.”

Friends said Glenn had carried around public service books for most of his life. Emphasizing his teacher’s impact, Steele’s picture and a description of his influence is cleverly and prominently displayed on the first floor of Ohio State’s Glenn College in Page Hall.

Glenn developed a love for flying and for taking risks at an early age, too. When he was eight, just two years after Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, his father paid to take them both up in an open-cockpit biplane from a field in Cambridge. It was literally a high point for Glenn that opened the door to years of successful piloting, in combat, on supersonic test flights and into space.

Glenn was a highly decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot who flew 149 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. In Korea, he shot down three MiGs and became good friends with his wingman Ted Williams, one of Major League Baseball’s greatest hitters.

Glenn was unafraid to push the envelope during his days as a military test pilot for experimental aircraft. In 1957, he set a transcontinental speed record in an F8U Crusader, flying coast to coast in just over 3 hours and 23 minutes. The ensuing fame led to his appearance on a popular game show at the time, "Name That Tune." Along with a 10-year-old partner, he eventually won the grand prize of $25,000 after several weeks, which became a startup college fund for his children.

On more than one occasion while flying, Glenn dodged some bullets, literally at times, that could have ended his life. He set the tone for taking risks and facing danger as a youngster when he continually climbed a giant sycamore tree at the edge of a ravine and forced himself to look down over a drop of more than 55 feet.

“Every time I climbed that tree, I forced myself to climb to the last possible safe limb and look down,” Glenn wrote in his memoir. “Every time I did it, I told myself I’d never do it again. But I kept going back because it scared me and I had to know I could overcome that.”

Life Changing Challenges

On April 6, 1959 — the Glenns’ 16th wedding anniversary — NASA accepted Glenn into its Project Mercury space program.

At 9:47 a.m. on Feb. 20, 1962, the nation and the world anxiously watched or listened as an Atlas rocket, belching 367,000 pounds of flaming thrust, blasted Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule into space and into orbit around the earth.

As the rocket accelerated, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter uttered the now famous tense-filled sentiments felt by many: “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Even the normally staid CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was caught up, saying on air, “Go, baby, go.”

After some nerve-racking moments in which Glenn was forced to steer the craft, NASA lost contact with him upon atmospheric reentry, and a mounting fear that his capsule might incinerate, Glenn and Friendship 7 splashed down in the Atlantic, three orbits and 4 hours and 56 minutes later.

Glenn, 40, the first American to orbit earth, was an instant hero, honored with impromptu and planned parades in Florida, Washington D.C., New Concord, and, along with the other Mercury astronauts, in one of the country’s largest pageants ever — a penetratingly cold New York City ticker tape parade in March thronged by an estimated four million people.

President John Kennedy forwarded a rare invitation to Glenn to address a joint session of Congress. Glenn reflected later that he stood at the Congressional podium as much because of his patriotism as for his exploits, and he intended to encourage the country’s continued investment into NASA.

“. . . exploration and the pursuit of knowledge have always paid dividends in the long run — usually far greater than anything expected at the outset,” Glenn told Congress.

Glenn continued his work with NASA, and even though he was a lifelong Democrat, he turned aside a suggestion in mid-1963 from Bobby Kennedy, who became a good friend and political mentor, to run for the Senate. But when a second space flight failed to materialize and President Kennedy was assassinated, Glenn’s powerful interest in public service and politics led him to announce his candidacy for the Senate in January 1964.

A serious fall forced Glenn to withdraw from the campaign and it was 11 years later before he was finally elected to the Senate, where he served from 1975 to 1999. In his pre-Senate years, Glenn became a senior executive for Royal Crown Cola and later joined Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.

But on June 4, 1968, the Glenns looked on in horror from Kennedy’s suite in the wake of his California primary victory as television broadcast Kennedy’s shooting. The Glenns had to break the distressing news to five of Kennedy’s 11 children who had been asleep at the hotel. After flying back to the Kennedy’s Virginia home the next morning, it fell to the Glenns to tell all of the children that their father had just died.

“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” Glenn wrote in his memoir.

Reviving the Dream

During Glenn’s Senate service, he entered the 1984 presidential race, but after racking up millions in debt and receiving a poor showing in several early primaries, he withdrew.

During Glenn’s 24 years as a senator, he cast more than 9,400 votes on a host of issues, including education, environment, health, the elderly, civil rights, military readiness, regulatory reform, limiting the expansion of nuclear weapons and increasing scientific research.

“Each had contributed in small or large measure to the painstaking march of our democracy,” Glenn wrote in his memoir. “I could not have asked for anything more rewarding.”

But there was one lingering preoccupation.

During his fourth term as a U.S. senator in preparation for a 1995 debate on NASA funding, it dawned on Glenn that the physical changes experienced by orbiting astronauts were similar to what the earth-bound elderly encounter.

Those realizations reignited Glenn’s long dormant desire to return to space and launched him into an intense lobbying effort to reach that goal. One of his biggest challenges came from home with Annie, who upon hearing the idea replied: “Over my dead body.”

But on Jan. 15, 1998, NASA announced that Glenn would return to space on the Discovery space shuttle on the STS-95 mission. Glenn would conduct a series of experiments related to the elderly, including protein research, cell aging and tissue engineering, among others.

The public immediately latched onto the idea with gusto.

On Oct. 29, 1998, the Discovery blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center making Glenn the oldest person to go into space.

The shuttle made 134 orbits in nearly nine days of travel, racking up 3.6 million miles. Glenn recalled being slightly unsteady upon emerging from the shuttle, but was determined to do the traditional walk around the craft unassisted.

When he came upon a six-inch air hose on the ground, Glenn remembers he wanted to jump over it because he was so joyous that he had made it to space once again.

“Now I was home. Annie was waiting,” Glenn wrote in his memoir. “I stepped over it instead. I was being forced to act my age, but only for moment.”

Young at Heart

Although Glenn may have cut back the throttle from his top-gun pilot days, he remained in exceptional shape through the ensuing years, seemingly able to keep at bay the encroachment of time.

“Very few people, students included, respond to him as an elderly person,” long-time aide Veno said. p>

Glenn gravitated to young people. He seemed much more relaxed around the younger generation than he ever did when glad-handing on the political circuit, longtime friends have said. In Washington, Glenn was always late, except when he met with young constituents in the Capitol.

“He always had a big interest in the younger part of his constituency,” said Veno. “He had an affinity for them.”

As he wound down his Senate career, Glenn seemed flummoxed by all the requests that he do something for Ohio. People thought they could learn something from his life.

In a 1996 letter he said: “I resist the idea of something focused just on me, and I would prefer to be involved as a springboard to generate something for Ohio, fostering future contributions to the nation. That strikes me as exciting and worth doing.”

Though Glenn chose Ohio State as a repository for his artifacts and to establish public policy educational opportunities, he made sure that he and Annie’s alma mater, Muskingum College, and also the Ohio Center for Science and Industry, were involved, including access to his memorabilia and personal and official papers.

The Glenn institute opened in 2000, landing renowned historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin as the inaugural speaker. The Institute trained public sector managers and started the Washington Academic Internship Program for college juniors and seniors and a High School Internship Program for seniors in Franklin County.

On July 1, 2006, the Glenn Institute merged with Ohio State's School of Public Policy and Management forming the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. On January 30, 2015 The Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees voted to grant the Glenn School college status making it the 15th college at The Ohio State University. The John Glenn College of Public Affairs offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree programs.

Depth of Service

“Having the John Glenn name gives it (the John Glenn College of Public Affairs) so much more identity and definition to help it grow,” said Mike Gillette, an oral historian expert who was involved in the early planning for the Glenn Institute at Ohio State and now the executive director of Texas’ state humanities council. “The college has really given the campus a dramatic increase in the focus on public service and public policy. It gives students a firsthand look at service in government.”

Others said the Glenn College unquestionably allows the university to live up to its motto: “Education for Citizenship.”

And the Glenn College serves as a nucleus to help elevate the important essence of public affairs and public management, said Anand Desai, an interim director of the school for six months. Having Glenn on board was a blessing, he said.

“He is a national icon and he was very valuable in a variety of different ways,” Desai said. “He was very generous with his time and he regularly give talks in classes.”

The college provides incredibly valuable academic opportunities to young students, especially through its internship programs, said Herb Asher, the first director of the Glenn Institute.

“When you think John Glenn, you think public service, so it’s a natural marriage and we have profited as a university,” Asher said.

And there is no doubt about Glenn’s depth of commitment to public service, he said.

“He had a set of beliefs about the nature of citizenship and the role an individual should be playing in their governance,” Asher said. For Glenn, this philosophy encompasses much more than just elected officials. It means everyone, Asher said.

“He really recognized that for government and the Constitution to be more than a piece of paper, it needs dedicated and committed people everyday to bring values to American lives,” Asher said. “He is really an inspiration.”

Photographs of John Glenn
Photographs from the memorial service
for John Glenn

Timeline of John Glenn's life
If you’re interested in making a gift in memory of Senator Glenn, consider donating to a scholarship that will help offset the cost of student loans for our future public servants.Donate to the Glenn Memorial Fund

© 2014 John Glenn College of Public Affairs
Page Hall, 1810 College Road, Columbus, Ohio 43210

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