Last week, Anna Margaret Glenn passed away at the age of 100, in a nursing home in St. Paul, Minnesota. The cause of death was complications from COVID-19, the pandemic disease that has been decimating the world's assisted living population as thoroughly as it decimated all other subjects on the news. COVID-19's newsworthiness right now makes it easy to brush aside the death of Annie Glenn as just another headline. But to pigeonhole her as "just another" anything would be a colossal mistake. Mrs. Glenn was not only an American hero, she was an essential part of a century of singular heroics among the greatest of all time. It is not at all an unreasonable estimation that Annie Glenn was the most accomplished person in American history. This Memorial Day, let's take a moment and remember her absolutely mind-boggling life.
Where do we even start to memorialize someone like Annie Glenn? It's tempting to jump straight to her famous husband but let's not, for a moment. Let's start by just understanding she lived to be 100 years old, a rare accomplishment all by itself. She was the mother of two, grandmother of two, a fully qualified pilot, studied music, even turning down a Julliard scholarship, but then went on to tutor multiple instruments. For most people these accomplishments would qualify as a well-lived life, but they are only the tip of the iceberg for Annie Glenn.
She was the wife of John Glenn, a Marine Corp fighter pilot who flew 59 combat missions in World War Two, participated in Operation Beleaguer, and flew 90 more combat missions in the Korean War, ultimately being awarded 6 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 18 Air Medals during that service. Annie and John had been high school sweethearts- in fact they met as toddlers, her at 3 and him at 2- and their amazing marriage became a public institution. John Glenn is another figure in American history whose greatest accomplishment is almost impossible to pinpoint; just his military service alone would more than earn him his place in Arlington National Cemetery, where Annie will soon be back at his side. But he was also a test pilot, risking his life countless times flying experimental aircraft. He made the first transcontinental supersonic flight in history, and took the first continuous panoramic photograph of the entire United States. He served as a US senator from Ohio for 22 years, and chair of the Senate Government Affairs Committee for 8. And he lived to be 95, still married to Annie after 73 years, but none of these astonishing feats are what this last week's obituaries and memorials have concentrated on when talking about Annie Glenn's famous marriage to a famous man. John Glenn was, undoubtedly, best known as a pioneering astronaut in the Mercury program. And Annie Glenn was undoubtedly best known as his wife. She was and remains the astronaut wife.
John Glenn is usually remembered as the first American to orbit the earth, a somewhat clumsy Cold War framing of the truly astonishing Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, one that's mostly meant to sidestep the equally astonishing accomplishments of USSR cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who beat Glenn to the feat. It's strange to hear this forced 1st-place-record still being parroted in 2020, especially in articles that are supposed to be about Annie. But the Mercury program, assembled by Dwight Eisenhower as a response to Sputnik panic, was as much about hype engineering as aeronautics, and Annie Glenn played a star role in this capacity. Women were not allowed to be astronauts- John Glenn himself protested the idea in 1962 before congress- but Annie was still pressed into service for the space program in her own way. As a founding member and by some accounts de facto leader of the "Astronaut Wives' Club", Annie Glenn was expected to be a role model to all Americans watching with her, waiting for her husband to come home safe. She was expected to dress, act, and most importantly consume products as an all-American wife, in relentless interviews and news coverage, and special Life Magazine spreads. Countless American popular consumer trends sprang from this Astrowife media blitz, including family station wagons, potluck crockware, even colors of lipstick. When Life Magazine published a photo of the Astronaut Wives wearing "patriotic red" lipstick it rewired the social contract on makeup, which had for generations passed over bright red as coquettish. Tellingly, the women hadn't even worn red lipstick; Life edited the photo without even consulting them. The astronaut wives were magazine models far ahead of their time in multiple ways.
By a certain logic that's what this article should be about: Annie Glenn is why you wear red lipstick. That's what the title would be changed to in an hour if this were BBC Online and we gaslit our readers switching around titles for SEO until one was really juicy. But even that choice bit of reductionism still misses the best parts of the story. Annie Glenn's deserved credit for John Glenn's career is, as with the spouses of all great people, incalculable. Beyond just personal support of him she was integral to NASA's relationship to the public, and the entire US's morale during the space race. She helped set countless fashion trends and to essentially model the later 20th century ideal of American womanhood. This is all more than enough to earn her a prime spot in the history books, and endless contemplation about her influence, but it's still not close to a complete view of the woman. I haven't even mentioned her stutter yet.
Annie Glenn accomplished all of those things despite a debilitating communicative disorder, disfluency, that she coped with for the first 5 decades of her life. She had such an extreme stutter it affected an estimated 85% of the words she spoke. For almost half a century she lived in fear of day-to-day activities like taking public transportation or shopping, but she made do with written notes. When she became a mother she was terrified she would not be understood over the telephone in an emergency- a friend or neighbor was always nearby to help in case. She was expected to be hypersocial but was frequently vexed that she could not make herself understood. She endured multiple unsuccessful psychological treatments for her condition until, at the age of 53, she took part in physical therapy at the Hollins Communications Research Institute, after which she could finally not only speak casually but even publicly, to large audiences. Go back to when we were just talking about her as a music teacher and a pilot, a military wife and mother and grandmother, married for 73 years. Just those accomplishments would be monumental considering the circumstances. Just that life is worthy of admiration, that she overcame decades of constant difficulty to do so much. And then you add Astrowife and American fashion goddess, and the picture of Annie Glenn becomes one of outright superhuman fortitude and courage. Plus, she lived to be a hundred, remember? And her 47 years of hard-earned eloquence were far from a retirement. By some measures, that's where her most important life's work started.
In the second half of her life Annie Glenn did not just continue supporting her husband's career, although she did that, again, with enough accomplishments to be any other person's entire life story. She boosted for John when he was a senatorial and a presidential candidate, giving speeches on a national stage. As a senator's wife she was on the board of the National First Ladies' Library. She became an astronaut wife again in her 70's when John Glenn set another record, the oldest man to go to space, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. She loved and supported her husband in countless ways until the day he died in December of 2016. But no, in addition to all that, Annie Glenn also became an outspoken advocate for disabled people, campaigning vigorously for 40+ years to promote programs directed at improving the lives of Americans with communications disorders. She traveled extensively with the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA), talking openly about her struggles, and by all accounts working wonders of empathy with other sufferers. She never claimed to be "cured" of her stutter, just able to finally cope with it. She served on the National Deafness and other Communication Disorders Advisory Council of the National Institute of Health, and became an adjunct professor in Speech Pathology at Ohio State University. The first recipient of the Annie Glenn Award, given to those who overcame communication disorders to achieve greatness, was James Earl Jones in 1987. She awarded it to him herself. Think about that for a second: Darth Vader has an award for oratory, and it's named after Annie Glenn.
At this point you may be wondering when the movie about her is coming out. It came out in 1983, John and Annie are both characters in The Right Stuff, a movie they reportedly didn't like as much as the Tom Wolfe book it's based on. Hopefully The Astronaut Wives Club, a miniseries from 2015 more about Annie and her fellows than John and his, did better. But neither of them shows Annie's life after the 1960's, that story remains to be told. I've heard more than one person compare it to 2010's The King's Speech, about King George VI overcoming his stammer. But it's not a perfect comparison- King George overcame his disability, sure, but he was only alive for about 10 more years after that, he smoked himself to death at 56. If we're being totally blunt, he's mostly famous nowadays for being Elizabeth the Second's dad (though with royals that's sort of always why they're famous). It's simply not fair to compare George VI to Annie, she had twice as long as he did and a much more supportive family. And I mean, really, George was only ever just the King of England, after all.
When I say that Annie Glenn is probably the most accomplished American of all time, I don't mean to tear down her husband Senator Glenn. If I'm right then he's doubtlessly a very close and respectable runner up, as he has often been. But thinking of their accomplishments as discreet from one another is always going to come up short; it's pretty clear Annie Glenn could not have done what she did without her famous husband, and that he could not have done what he did without her. I'm from Ohio and I can confirm that in Senator Glenn's home state the couple are a beloved institution, and the general consensus is that celebrating them just has to be done as a pair. John's boyhood home was restored to its original address in New Concord Ohio as a memorial, but it's still the John and Annie Glenn museum. Perhaps even more charming is the street on Ohio State's campus, Annie and John Glenn Avenue. And it's important to consider that no matter how many death-defying world records John set or positions of power he inhabited, he was always doing so with spotless physical and mental health, we have confirmation of that in the winnowing process to select the Mercury 7 astronauts, and reconfirmation decades later from a whole new generation of NASA doctors who vetted him for the Space Shuttle, by the same criteria as the younger astronauts. He had to cope with fear no doubt, but never the daily, unrelenting fear of a disability that colors every minute of one's life. We don't even need doctors to confirm it, John Glenn admitted as much in his 1999 memoir:
"I saw Annie's perseverance and strength through the years and it just made me admire her and love her even more. 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."
There's a line from a John Milton sonnet that people like to quote when they talk about the spouses of servicepeople: "They also serve, who only stand and wait". On its own this hits on an indelible image of Annie Glenn, the astronaut wife who waited for her husband to return from, at the time, the greatest distances humans could travel. Her ability to represent her husband's mission on the ground while he defied death for country, for science, and for all mankind is a beautiful legacy all to itself. But if you dig deeper you'll find that Milton's words apply to Annie Glenn better than most. They're from a poem called When I Consider How My Light is Spent, about Milton losing his literary abilities as he went blind. He was worried that he couldn't serve country or even God anymore because of his disability, and resolves a few lines earlier that " who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state is kingly". He finds relief, we can hope, in the idea that accomplishments aren't just about the things themselves. That "God doth not need either man's work or his own gifts", but that the test of a person is really in what they overcome to do those things, even if the thing to overcome is acceptance that one's role has to be adjusted to fit their limitations. In that respect, Annie Glenn is probably the most accomplished American who ever lived, she overcame intense difficulty to become a defender of those similarly afflicted, and her string of outrageous and incredible feats of daring is at the very least the equal of her husband's, if it doesn't surpass it. But most importantly, through her trials she transformed those accomplishments into more than just a list of where she was and what she did. They became examples for other people to follow. All of us can know that it's never too late to outdo ourselves, no matter how well we've done already, thanks to the example of Annie Glenn. Her husband circled the Earth a few times, but her inspirational deeds continue to circle it even now after her death.
Anna Margaret Glenn died on Tuesday, May 19 2020. She was 100 years old.
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