Real American hero made his mark here, too
John Glenn, astronaut and U.S. senator, who died last week at 95 surrounded by loved ones in an Ohio hospital, was a genuine, outsized American hero by any standard.
And in a way, Southern Mar yland can claim him as one of its own. He did two tours of duty at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the first in 1945 during which the Marine was promoted to captain. He eventually ascended to the rank of colonel. In the 1950s, he and his family returned, living in the Town Creek Manor area of Lexington Park for a few years when he was testing aircraft at the base. Like so many other American astronauts, he went through the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Pax River, graduating with Class 12 in July 1954. He came back to Southern Maryland on several occasions, including during his unsuccessful 1984 bid to become president of the United States.
His legacy remains with the region today. In 1986, 250 new townhomes for Pax River personnel opened up on Willows Road in Lexington Park, called Glenn Forest — named after Glenn. In 2005, a scholarship called the John Glenn Squadron was established at the base for Southern Maryland high school students studying for science, technology, engineering or math degrees.
One of the world’s greatest aviators, a much-decorated hero in both World War II and the Korean War, and both the first American to orbit the Earth and the oldest ever to go into space, Glenn was a transcendent figure. Especially in the America of the early 1960s, he was a risk-taking, self-endangering model of both accomplishment and cool.
In his classic 1979 book “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe captured the awe and the reverence accorded America’s first astronauts and the courage the clean-cut, intensely focused Glenn displayed when he circled above the Earth for nearly five hours in the tiny Friendship 7 spaceship on Feb. 20, 1962.
It was a moment of national pride for Americans caught up in the Cold War space-race rivalr y with the Soviet Union, which had already placed cosmonauts in orbit the year before. Four million people turned out to cheer him and the other Mercury astronauts at a New York City ticker-tape parade after his splashdown.
Glenn later said he didn’t care much for the 1983 movie made from the book — he felt actor Ed Harris oversold his piousness — but he didn’t have to worry about his reputation taking a hit. He was in the middle of a 24-year stint as a Democratic senator in which he was held in high regard for his acumen in defense, weapons and technology issues.
His 1984 presidential bid went nowhere — he didn’t have the self-promotion skills of the most successful politicians — but he resumed his legislative career without regrets or self-pity, seeing it as the continuation of a devotion to serving America that he first displayed when he enlisted in the military shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.
Thirty-six years after his first visit to space, near the end of his Senate ca- reer, Glenn went back into orbit again — this time on the shuttle Discover y. The 77-year-old was a test subject to demonstrate the effects of space travel on aging. A photo of Glenn beaming with joy as he was prepped for the flight spoke volumes about how much it meant to him.
Even in retirement, the man who shattered the transcontinental flight speed record as a test pilot never lost his love of flying. Well into his 80s, he would fly his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron back and forth from Washington, D.C., to Ohio with his beloved wife, Annie, a childhood friend to whom he was married for 73 years.
When he was 90, he still had an active pilot’s license.
The United States became a much more complicated, more self-critical nation over the course of Glenn’s lifetime, as is implied by Wolfe’s description of him as “the last true national hero America has ever made.” But Glenn shouldn’t be marginalized as a storied figure from a simpler time. He was an American giant who left an indelible mark on histor y.