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A Life Dedicated to the Common Good

News Type College News

By Dean Trevor Brown 

July 18, 2021, marks what would have been John Glenn’s 100th birthday. Even though he died almost five years ago, it’s worth reflecting on his contributions to our collective lives. 

We typically celebrate his remarkable accomplishments — service in two wars, WWII and Korea; orbiting the earth almost 60 years ago and then journeying back into space at the age of 77; and success in four Senate elections. Notwithstanding these achievements, what makes him extraordinary in the current era was his commitment to a set of values born of his faith and upbringing in the town of New Concord, Ohio. 

He relished hard work in pursuit of personal excellence. A favorite story I like to share with Glenn College students is that Glenn was initially denied entry into an advanced flight-training program, even after his decorated service in WWII and Korea, because he had not completed calculus while a student at Muskingum College. Undaunted, Glenn convinced the admissions panel that he would spend every night of the program learning calculus. While other pilots spent their evenings tipping back beers, Glenn pored over textbooks to learn the operation of cutting-edge aircraft and derivatives and integrals. 

Merit mattered for Glenn, too. As he prepared in 1962 to sit atop a rocket that would hurtle him through the barrier of the Earth’s atmosphere, he knew that those with a deeper understanding of calculus needed to plot his re-entry — a degree off in one direction and he would inexorably spin through space, while a degree off in the other would erupt the capsule in flames. Hence his insistence that Katherine Johnson, the Black, female, NASA mathematician of Hidden Figures fame, be the one who verified the computer calculations of his trajectory. Disregarding the prejudices others had against women and people of color, he trusted her intellect and mathematical acumen. 

But Glenn also acutely understood the power of political, economic and social systems and the limits of personal responsibility. In the 1920s, Glenn’s father had conscientiously toiled and saved as a plumber, and yet the financial cataclysm of the Great Depression put the family’s home at risk of foreclosure. His father had done everything right, but economic forces outside his control dictated his fate. It was the bounty of the federal government that provided financial assistance so the family could keep their home.  

Glenn also understood that systems of power shaped the trajectory of different people’s lives unequally. A recent publication by Rutgers University Assistant Professor James Jones on the history of the U.S. Senate highlights a 1978 speech then-Senator Glenn gave in which he labeled Congress the “last plantation” because of the inequity of representation — the overwhelming majority of senators looked like Glenn, white and male. He knew that it would take more than an even playing field to rebalance the scales. 

Taken together, Glenn’s value-driven life embodied the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  For Glenn, there was no dissonance between the values that shaped his life: personal responsibility could only lead to a fair and just world if systems were changed to not only increase access but also provide a helping hand. 

In too many of our national conversations, these values are pitted against each other: hard work and merit versus equity and justice. As we celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday, it’s hard not to marvel at all he did for us — defend liberty and democracy as a Marine aviator; demonstrate the power of human ingenuity as an astronaut; and improve the U.S. education system and reduce nuclear proliferation as a journeyman politician. The important lesson of his life, though, is that these achievements were born of what others saw as opposing values coming together in a remarkable man to build something better — the common good.  

This column originally appeared as an op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch on July 18, 2021. 
John Glenn relaxes aboard the U.S.S. Noa during the recovery phase of NASA's Project Mercury MA-6 mission, Feb. 20, 1962. (NASA photograph)