The secret to John Glenn’s heroism—his wife

The two were inseparable from the age of two, and maintained a loving and beautiful marriage to be admired.

John Glenn, former American astronaut, Marine Corps fighter pilot, and United States Senator, 1998. Wikipedia

This week John Glenn, American war hero, U.S. senator, and the first man to orbit the Earth, passed away at the age of 95. Glenn was also the oldest person to go into space when he rocketed into orbit aboard the Discovery mission at the age of 77.

Glenn led an incredible life, completing dozens of military missions as well as space voyages, earning himself the Marine Corps Astronaut Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. While the country pays tribute this national hero, it’s worth noting another accomplishment: Glenn’s marriage to his wife Annie, which thrived for more than 70 years. John and Annie met at age two, became high-school sweethearts, and married in 1943.

Glenn’s USAF F-86F that he dubbed “MiG Mad Marine” during the Korean War, 1953. Wikipedia
Official U.S. Senate portrait of John Glenn, 1990s. Wikipedia
John Glenn in his Mercury spacesuit in preparation for launch of Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) rocket. Wikipedia

View full gallery

Annie Glenn, though not a space traveler, was a force to be reckoned with herself. She struggled with stuttering throughout her life—the disability was so affecting that she had trouble with at least 85 percent of the words she tried to speak. In fact, Annie rarely spoke at all until she enrolled in an intensive, three-week program in Roanoke in which she was not allowed to call friends or family until the program was completed. At the end of the three weeks, she picked up the phone and called her dear husband. According to Mr. Glenn’s memoir, she spoke so clearly that it brought him to tears. One of the first things Mrs. Glenn said to her husband? “John, I’ve wanted to tell you this for years. Pick up your socks.”

In a crowd, she … finds the shyest person in the room and takes the time to draw him out.

After Annie completed the program, she knew she had found her purpose and calling. She began making public speeches in support of her husband’s candidacy for U.S. Senate—but the most remarkable act was what happened after the speeches. As a reporter noted in 1984, Annie sought out the handicapped. “In a crowd, she heads straight for those in wheelchairs. She has a sort of radar; finds the shyest person in the room and takes the time to draw him out.”

MORE TO READ: 7 lessons from the successful marriage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip

She went on to become an adjunct professor in the speech pathology department at Ohio State University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science, served on the National Deafness and other Communication Disorders Advisory Council of the National Institutes of Health and has won numerous awards for her work in this field.

This couple was obviously committed to making the world a better place, and their accomplishments speak volumes about their characters. But perhaps the quality and longevity of their relationship says more about them than their awards and acknowledgements ever could. Celebrity marriages are often met with challenges that lower-profile relationships are rarely faced with. One such challenge: one member of the marriage routinely leaving the Earth for risky and dangerous missions—missions that often garnered hoards of female fans, eager for a glimpse of the handsome American pioneer.

Each time Glenn left for a mission—in the military or to space—he would tell his wife that he was just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum, to which she would lovingly respond, “Don’t take too long.”

Throughout his career, John Glenn never wavered in his devotion and fidelity to his childhood playmate, lifelong companion, and one true love, Annie. When he began flying missions in World War II and the Korean War, he and Annie began a sacred tradition. Each time he was leaving for a mission—in the military or to space— would tell his wife that he was just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum, to which she would lovingly respond, “Don’t take too long.” As he prepared to head to space on his final mission in 1998, the last thing John gave his wife was—you guessed it—a pack of chewing gum. Mrs. Glenn spoke of how deeply his gesture touched her, and kept that pack of gum in her pocket until her husband returned to Earth.

MORE TO READ: 14 funny & meaningful marriage milestones to look forward to

The two had an immeasurable amount of respect for each other, and their marriage was one of faithfulness, simplicity, and lifelong friendship. Perhaps some of Mr. Glenn’s unmatched success was enabled by his strong and loving wife, who was an inspiration to many, including Mr. Glenn himself. Volumes have been written about John Glenn—a man most Americans revere as a true hero. But as Mr. Glenn once wrote of his wife, “It takes guts to operate with a disability. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do all the things that Annie did so well.”

“We tend to think of heroes as being those who are well known,” he wrote, “but America is made up of a whole nation of heroes who face problems that are very difficult, and their courage remains largely unsung. Millions of individuals are heroes in their own right.”

“In my book, Annie is one of those heroes.”

Ashley Jonkman
Ashley Jonkman
Ashley is a freelance writer and editor. She lives with her husband, two sons and two rambunctious dogs in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Leave a comment: