December 10, 2016
The Passing of John Glenn, the last genuine American hero–A Tribute
by Dale Butland
Columbus, Ohio — World War II and Korean War hero. First American to orbit the Earth. Kennedy family friend and confidant. The only four-term senator in Ohio history. An astronaut again at the age of 77.
Newspaper writers and evening news broadcasters will detail John Glenn’s one-of-a-kind biography — and most of them will surely observe that his passing on Thursday (December 8, 2016) at the age of 95 marks “the end of an era.”
“With John’s passing, our nation has lost an icon and Michelle and I have lost a friend. John spent his life breaking barriers, from defending our freedom as a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, to setting a transcontinental speed record, to becoming, at age 77, the oldest human to touch the stars. John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond — not just to visit, but to stay. …
“The last of America’s first astronauts has left us, but propelled by their example we know that our future here on Earth compels us to keep reaching for the heavens.”–President Barrack Obama
To me, John actually personified an era — one that, like him, has largely passed from the scene and may never again be recaptured. It was a period whose values were forged during the Great Depression, tested in the bloodiest war and expressed most clearly at the personal level by the interlocking virtues of modesty, courage and conviction.
Beginning in 1980 and continuing for nearly two decades, I was lucky enough to work for him, including as press secretary and director of his final re-election campaign in 1992. We were also friends, and I will cherish having been able to speak with him shortly before he died.
Despite his international celebrity, the ticker-tape parades and the schools and streets named in his honor, John never let any of it go to his head. He dined with kings, counseled presidents and signed autographs for athletes and movie stars. But he never pulled rank, rarely raised his voice and remained unfailingly polite and conscious of his responsibilities as a hero and a role model until the day he died.
The courage John displayed wasn’t merely physical, though he certainly had plenty of that. Anyone who flew 149 combat missions in two wars as a Marine fighter pilot — and then volunteered to become a Mercury 7 astronaut at a time when our rockets were just as likely to blow up on the launchpad as they were to return home safely — obviously had physical courage to spare.
But for me, even more impressive was John’s personal and political bravery, especially when it came to defending the values and friends he held dear.
Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about occurred in an incident that, to the best of my knowledge, he never publicly disclosed.
Following his 1962 spaceflight, John and Robert F. Kennedy became such close friends that their families sometimes vacationed together.
By 1968, John had retired from the Marine Corps and taken a job as president of a major American corporation’s international division.
“We were living in New York, and they were paying me $100,000 a year, which at that time was real money,” he told me. “For the first time in our lives, Annie and I didn’t have to worry about putting our kids through college or helping our parents financially as they got older.”
That spring, Mr. Kennedy decided to run for president and John readily agreed to campaign for him.
John’s employer, however, wasn’t keen on having its highest profile executive publicly supporting Mr. Kennedy. So John was soon summoned to an “emergency meeting” of the corporate board where a resolution was to be passed barring any board member from “engaging in partisan politics in 1968.”
When the meeting was called to order, John rose from his seat to say that there was something his colleagues should know before taking a vote.
“Bob Kennedy asked me to campaign for him and I told him I would. And I will, because he is my friend. And if keeping my word means I can’t be associated with this company any longer, I can live with that.
“But if that’s what happens, we’re going to walk out of this room and you’re going to hold your press conference and I’m going to hold mine. And we’ll see who comes out better.”
No vote was called and the meeting was quickly adjourned.
John’s politics, of course, aren’t the point of this story. To me, it was his fierce determination to keep a promise to a friend, even at the expense of sacrificing the first real financial security he and his family had ever known. It’s the kind of courage we don’t see much anymore.
When John passed away, we lost a man who many say is the last genuine American hero. Not because others won’t do heroic things, but because national heroes aren’t easily crowned or even acknowledged in this more cynical age.
He belonged to an earlier and more innocent era — when we trusted our institutions, thought government could accomplish big and important things, still believed politics could be a noble profession, and didn’t think that ticker-tape parades were reserved for World Series or Super Bowl champions.
But the last “good” war ended almost 70 years ago. The Cold War is almost 30 years past. The space program has lost its luster. The clarity with which John saw honor and moral responsibility seems almost quaint today. And the time when we could all cheer for the same national hero may now be past.