In an emotional remembrance, John Glenn was honored Saturday for an unprecedented career in public service, from his days as a combat fighter pilot, his historic journey into space as the first American in orbit, a quarter-century of service as an Ohio senator and his unlikely return to space at age 77 aboard the shuttle Discovery.
“John defined what it meant to be an American, what we were about, just by how he acted,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “It was always about promise. We were a country of possibilities, opportunity, always a belief in tomorrow.”
Speaking directly to Glenn’s wife of 73 years, Annie, Biden said, “Together, you and John taught us that a good life is not built on a single historic act, or multiple acts of heroism, but on a thousand little things, a thousand little things that build character - treating everyone with dignity and respect.”
Biden said that when a Marine bugler plays “Taps” at Arlington National Cemetery, where Glenn will be buried later in a private ceremony, future generations “will come to understand, if they’re looking for a message to send about our time here on Earth, for what it means to be an American, it’s the life of John Glenn.”
A devoted husband and father of two, Glenn died Dec. 8 at age 95. He lay in repose in the Ohio Statehouse rotunda earlier this week for public viewing of his flag-draped casket, surrounded by a U.S. Marine Corps honor guard.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other dignitaries took time to honor the former senator-astronaut, as did his wife and children.
Accompanied by another escort of 40 Marines, led by flag bearers and drum corps, Glenn’s casket was slowly moved to Ohio State University’s Mershon Auditorium for a celebration of the astronaut’s life.
Glenn’s two children, John David and Carolyn Ann, spoke eloquently of their father, sharing memories and anecdotes about growing up with a renowned parent who went out of his way to eschew the trappings of fame and to be, as Lyn put it, “just Dad.”
“In your heart, Dad, you remained a small-town boy and you wore celebrity lightly and taught us the same,” she said. “Though you met presidents, CEOs, kings and queens, you had a common touch with people at a gas station or at a Bob Evans (restaurant), where you and mother would stop for fried mush and scrambled eggs.”
She said her father chose a Marine-issue casket and asked to be carried to his grave at Arlington by enlisted Marines.
“I love that after ‘Taps’ is played at your burial, you want ‘Reveille’ to be played because you said, ‘I’ll be getting up in a whole new dimension.’ And you said it with a grin.”
She remembered her father treated others “as you wanted to be treated, you were true to your word with a handshake, you gave to the Salvation Army and lived with humility and gratitude.”
“Once, I asked for your insight and guidance when I thought I had a good idea for an investment,” she recalled. “After we talked for a while, you thought and you said, ‘Well, yes, but how much is enough?’ In today’s world, your words almost seem quaint. But they should be a standard. How much is enough?”
She closed her remarks by saying her father “lived many lives in one life, with honesty, grace, belief in our country and the honor of public service. I am proud and so grateful to say you’re just my Dad. Thank you, Dad. I love you. Godspeed, Dad.”
Bolden, a former shuttle commander, said Glenn “represented innovation and bravery and, with that infectious grin, he made us all feel good about ourselves.”
Glenn’s unswerving devotion to core American values -- family, faith and love of country -- coupled with humility, battle-tested courage and an undying belief in the value of exploration made him a beloved icon, Bolden said, and universally accepted as a national hero.
“John first flew to space aboard Friendship 7 and he was truly a friend of humanity,” Bolden said, “a daring pilot who risked his life in World War II and Korea and worked tirelessly to advance the field of aviation long before he took to space. He dared the utmost on behalf of us all.
“It is fitting that this day also marks the 113th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. Just as John advanced the frontiers of aviation, so too, will we follow his legacy to us to travel farther in space.”
Born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, and was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1943. He completed 59 combat missions in the Pacific theater during World War II and another 90 during the Korean conflict.
While Glenn was serving as a Navy test pilot in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, kicking off an intense Cold War space race. NASA was created in 1958, and in April 1959, Glenn and six other military pilots were named as the agency’s first seven astronauts -- the Mercury 7 -- all instantly famous.
The Soviet Union beat America to orbit with the launch of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. It fell to Glenn, as the pilot aboard the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule, to restore America’s confidence, rocketing into orbit for a nail-biting three-orbit flight on Feb. 20, 1962.
Glenn returned to a hero’s welcome so intense that President John F. Kennedy ordered NASA managers not to risk the astronaut’s life with a second spaceflight.
Glenn ultimately resigned from NASA and turned his focus to business and then politics, becoming a close friend of the Kennedy family and eventually serving four terms in the U.S. Senate representing Ohio. Toward the end of his Senate career, Glenn successfully lobbied then-NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin for a second space flight, this time as a medical test subject aboard a space shuttle.
Becoming the oldest human to fly in space, Glenn blasted off aboard Discovery on Oct. 29, 1998. During a nine-day mission, he served as a test subject for a variety of medical studies to learn more about the age-related effects of weightlessness and spaceflight.
“John Glenn always said ‘yes,’” Bolden said Saturday. “Yes to his country’s call in the U.S. Marine Corps, yes to being the first American to orbit the Earth as one of the Mercury 7, yes to his state’s nomination to serve in the Senate and yes to the ongoing call of his nation to help it forge a path through a new millennium.
“It was the courage, grace and humility John displayed throughout his life that lifted him above the stars,” Bolden said. “I can say unequivocally that we are standing on John Glenn’s shoulders as we pursue a human journey to Mars -- a journey that would not be possible without his bravery and selfless dedication.”
Glenn’s son David recalled that nothing was more important to his father “than having been in a band of brothers, being in a group of people like the Marine Corps who were more afraid of failing their comrades than of losing their own lives.”
His father always found time to answer questions, he said, from explaining the lift of an airplane wing to naming the stars in the sky. He fondly recalled family trips, his father’s cooking and his enormous curiosity about the world.
And he recalled visiting his parents this past October for dinner.
“We were all talking and somehow got onto the subject of Neil Armstrong, the astronaut,” David said. “And Dad was remembering being at Neil’s 80th birthday party. He described Neil sitting down at that party, at the end of it, and playing ‘September Song’ on the piano and singing that song.
“And then, sitting there at the table with us back in October, my father began to quietly sing, and he sang that whole song to us, to my mother and my wife and I, because we happened to be sitting there with him. But it felt like he was really singing this to everybody in his life that he cared about.
“And this is what he sang to us: ‘Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September. When the autumn weather turns leaves to flame one hasn’t got time for the waiting game. When the days dwindle down to a precious few, September, November and these few precious days I’ll spend with you. These precious days I’ll spend with you.’”