It was February 20, 1962. I was in second grade in Mrs. Smith’s class at Washington Elementary. A number of our classes lined up, and I believe, went to the movie room where they wheeled in a television. For the first time ever, an American would attempt to orbit the earth. This American was a special hero to us. He was an Ohioan, having grown up in the small town of Muskingum. He was a decorated fighter pilot, having flown in both World War II and in the Korean War, where he flew 63 missions and was nicknamed “Magnet Ass” for his ability to attract (and survive) enemy flak–returning with over 250 holes in his aircraft after one flight, but none in him.
We watched as he shoe-horned himself into the tiny Friendship 7 capsule that sat atop the Atlas rocket. We waited through the countdowns and delays. And then the moment came when the countdown reached zero, and the rocket fired into life. We held our breath. Rockets had exploded on the launch pad. We heard that voice from Mission Control say, “Godspeed, John Glenn” and it was the prayer on everyone of our lips. Slowly the booster gained speed and altitude and disappeared downrange.
Glenn was not a passive passenger. The automatic control system failed, meaning Glenn had to pilot the capsule manually. One orbit, then two and three. Then came the time for re-entry and we heard the ominous report that a sensor indicated that the heat shield had come loose. It was all that stood between the friction of the atmosphere heating up the outside of the capsule, and Glenn. He reported chunks of flaming debris going past the window of the capsule (later determined to be remnants of the rocket pack), and then radio silence for several minutes. And then Glenn came back on the air. He was alive, and as it turned out, the sensor, faulty.
Glenn inspired a generation of us to think about space, which our teachers used as an incentive to learn our math and science. At home, I built models of the rockets and read everything I could about space flight. We bought model rocket kits and launched them in open fields. We all aspired to become aerospace engineers, and some of us ended up pursuing those fields.
Meanwhile Glenn left NASA, went into business, and then won a seat representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate in 1974, in the aftermath of Watergate. He served for 24 years in the Senate and even made a run at the presidency. I became a dad, and had a son who loved everything connected with space (blame it on Star Trek). And John Glenn, now in his seventies, won a seat on the space shuttle Discovery, this time spending nine days in space in 1998. My hero became my son’s hero. A few years later, as a freshman at Ohio State, he had the chance to meet Glenn personally and shake his hand.
By this time, he was retired from the Senate, and taught public policy at Ohio State in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, in one of the buildings surrounding the Oval. It was not uncommon for students to speak of Glenn stopping by and talking with them. He was also one of the few non-marching band members to dot the “I” in script Ohio at an Ohio State game.
John Glenn passed away on December 8 at the age of 95. Yesterday he lay in state in the Ohio State House, joining Abraham Lincoln as one of only nine Americans to receive this honor. Today, public memorial services will take place in Mershon Auditorium just across from Page Hall, where the college that bears his name is housed. He will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
I wonder how many of you were inspired, like me, as you watched this hero, this man with the “right stuff,” rocket into space, either in 1962 or 1998? But space exploration was but the tip of the iceberg for this decorated flying ace, public servant, and mentor to the young. Perhaps the greatest distinction was being a husband for 73 years to his lifelong sweetheart Annie.
John Glenn, for me, defines what it means to live a heroic life. His heroism was not defined by a single moment, not even his flight on Friendship 7, but rather a life of courage and character and common decency. Perhaps the re-telling of his story in his passing will inspire yet another generation to emulate his life. Godspeed, John Glenn!