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Servant Leaders: Glenn College Recognizes Excellence in Public Service

News Type Public Address

John Glenn College of Public Affairs Dean Trevor Brown (left), presents the Excellence in Public Service award to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. (Credit: Majesti Brown)

By Joan Slattery Wall

Before his 1986 flight on the Space Shuttle Columbia, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson took a moment to look out from the Kennedy Space Center launch pad in the early morning darkness where his grandparents had worked the land four miles away under the Homestead Act.

He said he knew they couldn't have contemplated that three-quarters of a century after they had been swatting mosquitos and fending off alligators and rattlesnakes, their grandson was going to leave the face of the Earth — literally.

“When I was a kid growing up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, all the names of those Original Seven (astronauts) were known by all of us kids,” Nelson said. “And of course, to me, John Glenn always stood out.”

In fact, Nelson’s life paralleled Glenn’s, with a career not only in space but also in the military and elected office — and fittingly earned him this year’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs Excellence in Public Service Award.

At a June ceremony in Washington, D.C., that capped the college’s yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of Glenn’s birth, Dean Trevor Brown presented Nelson with the award, which honors individuals who share Glenn’s broad and deep commitment to public service over the course of their careers, predominantly at the national level.


NASA Administrator Bill Nelson talks to Glenn College students at the Excellence in Public Service awards ceremony. (Credit: Majesti Brown)

Nelson served in the U.S. Army Reserve for six years (1965–71), including active duty in the Vietnam War; he earned the rank of captain. After serving in the Florida House of Representatives from 1973 to 1979, he was a U.S. representative for six terms (1979–91) for Florida’s 9th and 11th congressional districts. On Jan. 12, 1986, he flew aboard the Columbia as a payload specialist, conducting 12 medical experiments including the first American stress test in space and a cancer research experiment sponsored by university researchers. Later, he represented Florida in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2019. In 2021 he was appointed administrator of NASA, an apt role given his service chairing the Space Subcommittee in the U.S. House and as the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“All of the positions and accomplishments are really just the observable trace elements of the underlying commitment to public service and leadership that makes him cut from the same cloth as Senator Glenn,” Brown said.

The senator’s son, David Glenn, and his wife, Karen, were unable to attend the ceremony but sent Nelson a letter of congratulations.

“Of all the values that guided (my father) in his lifetime, none was stronger than the dedication to public service. He was deeply committed to supporting and honoring the principled and enduring leadership of people such as yourself who take action in the public sector to help make America a more inclusive, just society — to enhance the Common Good,” David Glenn wrote. “You have done just that, and he would be so pleased to acknowledge your life of service with this award.”

Nelson lauded Glenn as a servant leader — those who know that their purpose is to serve others, not serve themselves.

“I believe that what John exemplified is the best of public service. He showed that a public office is a public trust,” he said, directing his comments to students in attendance from Glenn College undergraduate and graduate programs in the nation’s capital. “I’m glad that we're joined today by students. Your generation will push the envelope of humanity’s potential. And you must lead it with the integrity shown by John.”