Remembering John Glenn: OSU’s stellar celebrity
John Glenn was a hero, whether he wanted to be or not. His achievements were otherworldly, fighting deftly for the country he loved, but his modest heart was always in Ohio. He somehow just couldn’t help but make history again and again. Glenn’s death on Dec 8th, at age 95, made international news, but nowhere was the impact felt more than right here in the Buckeye state’s capital. Columbus was Glenn’s base of operations for much of his life, though we did have to frequently share him with Washington D.C., and sometimes the stars.
Born in the small town of Cambridge, Ohio on July 18,1921, and raised in New Concord, a little over an hour east of Columbus, Glenn’s young life started off relatively normal. He did the things that young boys did in the 1920s and 30s, including chase his high school sweetheart, Annie, who would go on to be his wife of 73 years. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Glenn knew what his nation needed of him, and he became a fighter pilot in the Marines.
In a pattern that would repeatedly show itself over the next half-century, the man was not capable of giving anything less than his all, and greatness soon found him. He flew hundreds of missions in World War II and the Korean War, racking up awards and promotions by the dozens, showing an astounding proficiency for bringing his aircraft home even when being hit with hundreds of rounds of enemy fire. In 1958, he became one of the nation’s greatest test pilots, helming control of some of the most powerful planes on the planet and taming them with a cool hand and a level head. He even piloted the first transcontinental supersonic flight, taking his plane from California to New York City in record time.Yet, at age 37, his brightest accomplishments were still ahead of him.
Glenn’s obsession with space began around this time, and when the fledgling group known as NASA began looking for potential humans to become “astronauts,” he was on the shortlist. He was chosen as a member of the Mercury 7, the elite few Americans who would catapult the United States into major contention in the Space Race with the Russians. On February 20, 1962 he would climb atop an Atlas rocket and man his Friendship 7 craft around the globe, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. His celebrity immediately grew, and his life would change forever.
Despite, or more accurately, because of his massive fame and accomplishment, Glenn would not be allowed back into space. NASA had their eyes on the moon, and because of his age and hero status, NASA could not afford the public relations nightmare should anything have happened to him. But Glenn’s thirst for civic duty would not allow him to rest, and just two years after his historic flight, he announced his intention to run for U.S. Senator of his home state of Ohio.
Though he would not take office until 1974, his political career would prove to be enduring, serving in the Senate for 25 years. He represented the Democratic Party, fighting for the rights of all citizens in the country he loved, his way of giving back to the people who had given him so much. Although his work would take him around the world (admittedly within its atmosphere) Ohio was the place he called home. In 1998, he founded the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy right here at The Ohio State University. He hoped to provide opportunities for future generations to better their communities and their world in whatever capacity they were able to, just as he had. Now known as the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, it lives on today, located at Page Hall at 1810 College Road, where his third-floor office and memorabilia from throughout his lengthy career can be seen by the public.
Glenn will forever be associated with OSU, serving as Grand Marshall of the 1990 Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade before the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl appearance, and delivering the commencement speech to the 2009 graduating class. He and Annie even had the honor of being two of the very few non-band members of The Ohio State University Marching Band to dot the “i” at a football halftime show. Glenn passed away on December 8 at the OSU Wexner Medical Center. He was the last living member of the Mercury 7. His body was displayed at the Ohio Statehouse, only the ninth person in history to be given such an honor.
On December 17, a memorial procession brought him down High St. to the campus he loved so dearly, and hundreds gathered to bid him farewell. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden convened to remember the man who had such a positive impact on the nation. President Obama ordered flags to remain at half-staff in Glenn’s honor until his interment.
There is so much more to be said about Glenn than could ever fit into this article—his lost Presidential and Vice-Presidential campaigns; his return to NASA in 1998 to become the oldest person ever in space; the hundreds of prestigious awards and Hall of Fame inductions; the highways, high schools, and airports (Columbus International, for one) named in his honor. His legacy is enormous and his flame will burn forever in the heart of America. Godspeed, John Glenn.