COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Former Ohio Senator and Astronaut John Glenn has died at the age of 95, according to a statement from Ohio State President Michael Drake.
A source close to the Glenn family confirms that Glenn, 95, had been hospitalized since late last week and that he was gravely ill. His family had been with him since that time.
Glenn was born in New Concord, Ohio, on July 18, 1921. He started his life as a small-town Midwestern boy, and his beloved wife, Annie, was at his side for all of it.
Their parents were best friends, and the pair met in a playpen as infants.
Glenn said there was never a time when he did not love Annie, and years later when World War II delayed their wedding, he told her he was just stepping out for a pack of gum.
“You know, I don’t know how that popped into my mind. When I was leaving, and it was a pretty sad time of course, I told Annie, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m just going to run down and get a pack of gum, and I’ll be back shortly.’ Every time I had to leave to do something then after that, whether it was in the Korean War or later on or in the astronaut program, it got to be regular. It sounds rather funny and peculiar,” Glenn said.
Glenn said he eventually brought Annie that pack of gum, and said, “I think to this day, she carries a little gum wrapper in her wallet.”
Glenn willingly went into battle, enlisting within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, without hesitation.
“No, there wasn’t, and I think back on it now, [it] the last war that the United States had where the people of this country were really united. I mean, like 98, 99 percent of the people wanted to do what we were doing and were willing to support us,” Glenn said.
Glenn flew 59 combat missions in WWII and 67 in the Korean War. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on six separate equations.
After the wars, he became a fearless test pilot, setting the supersonic transcontinental record of three hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds.
Then came the space program.
“Early in life, there was no such word as astronaut. Nobody knew there was such a word,” he said.
Few could picture the strapping 6 foot 3 inch tall Glenn folding himself into a tiny compartment in a 9 foot capsule.
“It was very important to the country at that time, and when you look back on it, I think people forget what the importance was, so much of the astronaut program back in those days. We were in the depths of the cold war with the Soviets at that time. And the Soviets were claiming technical superiority and research superiority to the United States,” Glenn said.
Neither Glenn nor NASA knew the true dangers of orbital flight. In fact, there was an eye chart inside the capsule because some doctors believed with sustained weightlessness he could go blind.
“You knew what the dangers were but the advantages of going were, like going on a combat mission you’re representing your country. There were some dangers, well, you accepted that. People often ask, ‘Were you afraid?’ Not afraid at the point where you would let it interfere with what you were doing,” Glenn said.
Glenn, and America’s six other space pioneers set about the job of launching the world’s leading space program.
“I thought Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff, had a lot of points. There was a thread that ran through that of some of the things that we were doing back then as test pilots and as astronauts that rang true. It was very good. But when Hollywood got ahold of that, they sort of took Hollywood license with a lot of things, and the seven of us didn’t care for the movie at all,” Glenn said.
Years after his famous orbit around the world, Glenn learned that President John F. Kennedy told NASA not to send him back into space. Kennedy didn’t want to risk the life of such an American hero.
But Glenn got his second flight at the age of 77, on the shuttle, when the first American to orbit the earth became the oldest man ever in space.
He also served four terms as a U.S. Senator.
“I had been through two wars when I got to the Senate and I thought nothing could be more horrible than contemplating a nuclear war, and so I was going to join forces with whoever was working on nuclear non-proliferation,” Glenn said.
Glenn was a best friend to Bobby Kennedy, and few people knew it was Glenn who sat on the edge of each Kennedy child’s bed to tell them their father was dead.
“It was one of the hardest things I ever did,” Glenn said.
In May 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Glenn the nation’s Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of service to his country.
But Glenn still had work to do.
“You know, I’ll leave legacies up to somebody else…I think I invented another word the other day. I said that instead of legacy, I like to think of it as a live-acy,” Glenn said. “I think you keep going every day. Not by what your calendar tells you, but by the way you feel, and that’s sort of the way we’ve tried to run our lives.”