What makes us bestow the title “Hero” on someone? When we think of John Glenn, it's easy to imagine that his credentials as an Astronaut, Senator, and Civil Rights Advocate qualify him. But for me, it's a little known, personal sacrifice that showed his true heroism. His act of valor took as much courage and conviction as orbiting the earth and serving in the senate. Here's the story of my brief, but memorable experience with John Glenn.
John Glenn is best known as the first American astronaut to circle the earth. He was an honest, say-it-like-he-saw-it guy. On Feb. 20, 1962, he climbed into a capsule perched 95 feet above the ground on top of an Atlas rocket. Glenn’s wife Annie watched, holding her breath with the rest of the world during the countdown and successful lift off into space. Glenn said later,
“I felt exactly how you would feel
if you were getting ready to launch
and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts
— all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Glenn was a highly principled individual. He recognized and acknowledged talent — irrespective of gender and color. He had confidence in his ground team; the group that supported his flight into space. He respected the work of the female mathematicians who did the complex calculations of the trajectory of his spaceflight, but they were automatically excluded from strategic planning meetings because they were women. Glenn found this ridiculous and intolerable. He challenged the NASA tradition, insisting the whole team attend all briefings. He trusted these women with his life, and they repaid his trust.
The rocket functioned. So did Glenn's heart and lungs. Orbiting at a velocity of 17,500 miles an hour, Glenn took photos of the earth's surface 162 miles below him. He tested the communication equipment. At one point, an automatic control system failed. It forced him to stabilize the capsule manually, and to modify his plan for re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. The ground team recalculated the trajectory the capsule had to take to ensure a safe splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. That mathematical calculation saved his life.
John Glenn continued to serve his country. He was senator of the state of Ohio for 25 years. He exhibited the same integrity, sensitivity, and values in this role.
In 1976, the Democratic National Committee chose two key note speakers for their convention: John Glenn and Barbara Jordan. Their job was to inspire the crowd and excite the millions of TV viewers watching at home. Barbara Jordan was known to be an excellent speaker. John Glenn was not. I received a call inviting me to work with them.
The morning of our scheduled meeting, John arrived to tell me that he valued the opportunity, but decided to decline. He came in person to explain why. Since childhood, his beloved wife Annie had suffered with a serious stutter. He was her champion, and he was very protective. He believed people should be accepted as they are, not formatted to fit a particular image. According to his values, it was disloyal and inauthentic for him to work on his speaking skills, which he described as, “competent and just fine.”
I disagreed. I believed that each of us should live up to our full potential and strive to do our best. I did not win the argument, although it was clear that John understood the sacrifice he was making.
Barbara Jordan did accept the coaching opportunity. She was a charismatic speaker, and although I thoroughly enjoyed working with her, I had little to do with her star quality. The New York Times wrote:
“There were two keynote speakers at the Democrats’ ’76 gathering, but history will pretty much forget Glenn’s contribution. Jordan, the first black congresswoman from the South elected to Congress, stole the show with one of the most powerful convention speeches ever delivered.”
It was courageous of John to act on his convictions. The cost was high, and it must have been difficult to read the reviews the next day. I learned later that despite his own military, scientific, and political accomplishments, John said his proudest moments came when his wife Annie dedicated herself to battling her stutter and succeeded.
Last week John Glenn died. Loyalty and the courage to champion his principles were the true measures of this hero.
Sources: themorningsun.com, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com.