Well before he exited the Earth’s atmosphere, John Glenn flew at least 149 combat missions – 59 during World War II and 90 during the Korean War.
It must have been difficult on his wife, Annie Glenn (maiden name, Castor). To ease her fear, before each mission Glenn would utter the same words:
“I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.”
“Don’t be long,” she would always respond.
He said it before he was propelled into space on Feb. 20, 1962, to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Years later, in 1998 when Glenn – a man possessing an “otherworldly spirit” – would exit earth’s gravitational pull at 77 years old, for the final time, they repeated the dialogue.
This time, he slipped her the perfect coda – a pack of gum – which she kept in a breast pocket until he returned to earth.
John and Annie were a strong couple – married 73 years – but while John spent his life in the air and on television, Annie spent hers here on Earth, focused on the people who often go unseen: the disabled.
“It really is worth everything to be able to help people,” Annie told The Washington Post in 1984.
And she did – despite, or more accurately because, of all she had to overcome.
To many, theirs was an odd coupling.
As John himself wrote, “We practically grew up in the same playpen. We never knew a time when we didn’t know each other.” (Annie says they were 2 years old when they met.)
But they were different. John was athletic and outgoing while Annie barely spoke, not because she didn’t have anything to say, but because when she did, people often assumed she was either deaf or mentally deficient.
For most of her life, Annie was afflicted with an 85 percent stutter, meaning she would become “hung-up on 85 percent of the words she tried to speak, which was a severe handicap,” as John put it.
Some of the inconveniences might seem small. John recalled them:
“For Annie, stuttering meant not being able to take a taxi because she would have to write out the address and give it to the driver because she couldn’t get the words out. It would be too embarrassing to try to talk about where she wanted to go. Going to the store is a tremendously difficult and frustrating experience when you can’t find what you want and can’t ask the clerk because you are too embarrassed of your stutter.”
Others were large. As The Post reported, once her daughter stepped on a nail. As blood gushed out, Annie couldn’t speak well enough to telephone for help. Instead, she found a neighbor to make the call for her.
She spent the early years of their marriage avoiding the spotlight. While John seemed to enjoy the television cameras, he clearly cared more for her privacy.
In his book about the Mercury 7 astronauts, “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe recalled an incident perfectly highlighting this fact.
John Glenn had just sat for five hours sitting in the Friendship 7 capsule, but the mission was eventually scrapped due to the weather. Meanwhile, Annie sat in their home with Vice President Lyndon Johnson sitting outside and, in Wolfe’s words, hoping to “pour ten minutes of hideous Texas soul all over her on nationwide TV.”
Annie stuttered this to John over the phone, as he prepared to climb out of his spacesuit. She didn’t want the media attention, not with her stutter.
“Look, if you don’t want the vice president or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, than that’s it as far as I’m concerned,” John Glenn told her. “They are not coming in and I will back you up all the way and you tell them that! I don’t want Johnson or any of the rest of them to put so much as one toe inside our house!”
“As the wife of a famous astronaut, I had to deal with being constantly in the public eye. I had to deal with the press. And if this wasn’t hard enough, I had to do it all with a severe handicap,” Annie told The Post.
She continued, “Those were difficult times for me. In times of difficulty or defeat, it’s easy to think that we really have no choices. That we are trapped. I know I felt that way. Having tried, having failed so many times.”
Then, one day in 1973, the couple was watching the “Today” show. A doctor was discussing a new method of treatment for stutterers, an intensive three-week program in Roanoke, Virginia.
Annie enrolled. They made her relearn each letter of the alphabet. They forced her to go to a shopping center and . . . shop. To ask questions, for the first time.
They weren’t allowed to call friends or family for that three weeks. When it was over, Annie picked up the telephone.
“When I called John, he cried,” Annie said. “People just couldn’t believe that I could really talk.”
And when she got home, according to John Glenn’s memoir, she talked. He recalled one of her first lines: “John, I’ve wanted to tell you this for years. Pick up your socks.”
Joking aside, she was 53 years old, and she had found her calling.
Annie began giving speeches on behalf of her husband when he ran for Senate. After each speech, she would rush to greet those everyone else ignored – the disabled.
As The Post’s Myra MacPherson observed in 1984:
“After years of cruel slurs, of being overlooked by strangers, Annie Glenn seeks 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. A group of deaf people were in the audience at one of her husband’s speeches. Afterward, Annie Glenn went over to them and soon was learning sign language. As the press crowded around Glenn, he looked over at his wife, who was signing “I Love You” to the deaf. ‘That’s what you should be covering,’ he told the reporters.”
Deciding to help those in need, she became an adjunct professor with the Speech Pathology Department at Ohio State University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science.
“She is incredibly inspirational to students, many who have not had that much contact with people who stutter,” Rebecca McCauley, a professor in the department said. “Her influence is quite huge when speaking to students who are just getting into the field.”
In recognition of Annie (and John), the school renamed a street on its campus to Annie and John Glenn Avenue in 2015.
By that point, though, Annie Glenn had received many honors for her work with those trying to overcome their stutters. In 1983, she received the first national award of the American Speech and Hearing Association for “providing an inspiring model for people with communicative disorders.”
Eventually, the association named an award after her. In 1987, the first recipient of the Annie Glenn Award was James Earl Jones, an actor who had previously struggled with stuttering himself.
With Glenn’s death this week, Annie Glenn, now 96, is alone for the first time in 73 years. But her life has been a testament to strength in adversity.
As John Glenn once wrote of her: “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.”