John Glenn May Have Left The Senate 20 Years Ago, But He Wasn't Done Making History

May 25, 2018

I don't hesitate to tell you that of all the countless political figures I have written about since the mid-1970s, my favorite, by far, is John H. Glenn Jr.

Not because of his political beliefs; not because of partisanship; not because of his almost instant accessibility to reporters.

It was because he was a legendary figure, a historical figure, long before he ever set foot in the Senate chamber as a U.S. Senator from Ohio in January 1975.

It was because he was my hero when I was nine years old and, on an early February morning in 1962, he climbed into a cramped Mercury space capsule, high atop an Atlas rocket, and became the first American to blast off beyond the Earth's thin atmosphere and orbit the planet.

It was dangerous; it was courageous; it took the world's collective breath away. It made the Marine pilot an instant American hero, a man praised and admired all over the free world.

And little nine-year-old me followed every minute of the four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds John Glenn spent orbiting the Earth three times before concerns over a loose heat shield forced the mission to end early.

That is why the four-term Democratic senator from Ohio is my favorite in nearly five decades of covering politics.

I first met Glenn in the early fall of 1974, 12 years after his Mercury mission, when he was the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, running against the Republican mayor of Cleveland, Ralph Perk. 

This campaign looked like a slam dunk for Glenn, given Perk's faux pas. Perk famously accidently set his hair on fire at a Cleveland industrial show. Then he became the butt of jokes when he was invited by President Nixon to a fancy dinner at the White House. Perk sent his regrets, saying that was his wife's bowling night.

I was the politics reporter for The Post, the five-day-a-week student newspaper at Ohio University. I asked for and somehow was granted a one-on-one interview with Glenn at an event in Columbus.

I had no car, but the editor of The Post, John Kiesewetter (and my good pal to this day) lent me his '64 Chevy for such occasions and I chugged up U.S. 33 from Athens to Columbus.  

I went to a room off in the hotel where Glenn was to greet a ballroom full of supporters. A Glenn aide warned me: Hurry it up. Colonel Glenn has a rally to do.

So, here I was, a long-haired, scruffy-looking college kid with a felt tip pen and a reporter's notebook, sitting across this squared-away Marine who looked like he had just stepped off a recruiting poster.

And, somehow, we hit it off.

He found out that I was born and raised in Dayton – the birthplace of aviation – and started talking in great detail and with great passion about the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville.

It was one of my favorite subjects, and I found I could hold my own with this space pioneer on the subject of the Wright brothers.

We talked of many things; politics and issues of the day. I was impressed that he treated a goofy-looking college kid seriously, as if I were David Broder of the Washington Post.

It was a great introduction to a relationship that lasted for decades.

Credit Howard Wilkinson / Personal Collection

Flash forward nearly 23 years to Feb. 20, 1997. The 35th anniversary of Glenn's Mercury flight.

I was up before dawn and gulping down coffee as I drove the nearly 175 miles from Cincinnati to New Concord, Ohio, the tiny village in the rolling hills of eastern Ohio where John Glenn and his wife Annie grew up, fell in love, and began their 73 years of married life.

For me, it was something of a sad trip. I knew what was going to happen when I got there. 

Brown Chapel on the campus of Muskingum College was filled with old friends, fellow politicians, colleagues from the space program and a small army of reporters and photographers.

All there for one purpose – to hear the then-75 Glenn announce that he would not be running for a fifth term in the Senate.

You could hear the ambivalence in his voice.

"There is nothing I might wish for more than to declare my candidacy – here in my hometown – for a fifth term in the U.S. Senate,'' Glenn said, as I stood in the back of the chapel with Dale Butland, his long-time aide and speechwriter.

"But for all the advances in science and medicine I have supported and have occurred in the 35 years since my orbital flight, one immutable fact remains – there is no cure for the common birthday."

After the speech, as John and Annie Glenn walked across campus to a private reception, their daughter, Lyn Glenn, a child psychologist from St. Paul, Minn., said it was not an easy decision for her father. Her parents walked hand-in-hand across the campus, as they had when they were both students at Muskingum in the early 1940s.

"He's at a point in his life where it is important that he is with my mother and the family, and he has earned that,'' she said. "He was real ambivalent about this decision. He loves what he does."

I managed to catch up to John and Annie briefly. I thanked him for all the help he had given me over the years and being so forthcoming and accessible.

"We had some good times, didn't we?,'' Glenn said, mentioning the time I traveled with him in New Hampshire in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination; the time we spent together at Democratic National Conventions in the past.

"You're a good man,'' he said.

I was dumbstruck. One of the best men I have ever known said I was a good man. I could scarcely believe it.

Over the next few years, I saw him from time to time, mainly at campaign events for other Democratic candidates, who sought to identify with his popularity.

But, well before then, something unbelievable happened.

Unbelievable, except for the fact that it had to do with John Glenn.

In 1998, NASA announced that the 77-year-old Glenn would become the oldest man to fly in space by serving as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

John Glenn is assisted by suit experts prior to a training session for the Oct. 29, 1998 launch aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Credit Joe McNally, National Geographic / NASA

I have no doubt that, for all those years since the flight of his Mercury space capsule, Friendship 7, there had been a deep hankering in John Glenn's soul to return to space.

The space shuttle program gave him that chance.

Glenn, part of a seven-member crew, spent most of his time in space investigating the aging process – how his body responded to the microgravity environment. The experiments focused on balance, perception, bone and muscle density, metabolism, blood flow and sleep.

His Mercury mission lasted a little over four hours. His space shuttle mission lasted nine days and orbited the Earth 134 times.

I wish I could have been there to see him take off and land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

But I was cheering from afar.

You go, Colonel!

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.