Skip to Main Content

John Glenn: The Senator

News Type College News

Nicknamed “Bud,” Sen. John 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. 

The patriotic stirrings he first experienced in New Concord, based on the defense of America’s ideals, became an opportunity to fulfill a sacred 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 his 1999 memoir, 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. The idea that you really could make a difference stimulated me,” Glenn wrote in his memoirs. “Mr. Steele’s course ignited a fire in me that never did go out.” 

A Distinguished Career in Public Service

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 before he was finally elected to the Senate, where he served four terms 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 5, 1968, the Glenns looked on in horror from Kennedy’s suite in the wake of his California primary victory as television news reports 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. 

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. 

In his 24 years as a senator, Glenn cast more than 9,400 votes on a host of issues, including education, environment, health, older adults, 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.” 

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 John Glenn College of Public Affairs in Page Hall. 

In 2012, Glenn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama (photo above).