When I scheduled a December trip to snowy Ohio, I had no idea I’d end up at a public funeral for one of America’s most famous astronauts. The life of John Glenn (July 18, 1921 to December 8, 2016) was celebrated last Saturday in a large auditorium on the campus of Ohio State University. And I was there, along with Ethel Kennedy, Vice-President Joe Biden, the top man at NASA, and a Marine honor guard in full regalia. Glenn himself was present too, lying in state in a flag-draped casket.
We onlookers learned -- through musical selections, well-crafted speeches, and video clips -- of Glenn’s life of public service and private rectitude. Though his origins were modest, he early on seemed destined to do great things. As a much-decorated fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, he served in World War II and in Korea. In 1959, he was one of seven military test pilots selected to become the U.S.’s first men in space. On February 7, 1962, Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. Later, having resigned from NASA, he entered politics, winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1974 and holding it until 1999. A lifelong Democrat, he became close friends with members of the Kennedy family. I was surprised to learn it was he, following the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, who had the painful task of breaking the news to the Kennedy children back home.
Though many of the speeches concerned his public accomplishments, I was most taken with those that revealed the private man. Glenn’s son and daughter spoke intimately about their dad’s enthusiasms: old westerns, chipmunks, hummingbirds, round tables, barbecued steak served medium rare. He taught his kids to build a perfect bonfire, and moved them with his tuneful tenor rendition of “The September Song.” They recalled him greeting a good report card with a question: “What have you done for our country today?” And they haven’t forgotten him turning down a $1 million offer to be featured on a Wheaties box. Above all, every speaker agreed on his steadfast love for his Annie, to whom he was married for 73 years. Said Vice-President Biden, “You taught us all how to love.”
It’s no surprise to learn that John Glenn has been featured in a number of films. Several were documentaries, like 1998’s John Glenn: American Hero, a TV movie that was timed to commemorate his return to space, at the age of 77, aboard the space shuttle Discovery. But Glenn was also a major character (played by Ed Harris) in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. This story of the original Mercury astronauts does not in any way idealize these so-called heroes. In fact, they’re depicted as cranky, often raunchy guys all too ready to check out the space groupies flocking to Cape Canaveral. Glenn, though, is the big exception. No question he’s cocky and ambitious, but he’s also the astronaut most aware of the power of public opinion. That’s why he can be found lecturing the others on the necessity of good behavior.
This week’s new release, Hidden Figures, also features Glenn. This is the true story of an unsung group of African-American female mathematicians whose work helped validate the science behind the Mercury launches. The movie shows Glenn refusing to fly his mission unless its computer-generated calculations are verified by math whiz Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson). This sounds like a Hollywood touch, but I’m happy to say that Glenn’s faith in a smart black woman is truly a part of history.