The two heroes of my youth were NASA astronaut John Glenn and NFL quarterback Johnny Unitas.
I never met “Johnny U,” who took the Baltimore Colts to prominence in the 1960s and died in 2002 at age 69. But once in a friend’s “Man Cave” I did try on the huge coat-cape he draped over his shoulder pads to keep warm.
However, I sure have a lot of personal memories about my all-time hero, fellow Ohioan John Glenn. First as a space-boy fan and later as an Associated Press photographer, I’ve had several personal encounters with the second most famous American space traveler—next to another Ohio native and first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.
The death of the astronaut, Senator and quintessential nice guy on Dec. 8 at age 95 was the end of an incredible American tale of success.
A Korean War fighter pilot with the one of baseball’s greatest players, Ted Williams, as his wing man, John Glenn was unaware that brave, combat experience would lead to international fame as first a test pilot, and then a spaceman.
When chosen as one of seven original NASA Mercury astronauts in 1959, Glenn quickly rose to the top of these amazing men, all with the “right stuff,” a term first used by author Tom Wolfe.
Following the sub-orbital, 15-minute flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, a date with destiny awaited Glenn as he would become the first American to orbit the Earth, three times for nearly 5 hours. At age 41, he was the second human to orbit Earth, 10 months after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin.
The month of February 1961 had Glenn patiently waiting inside the tiny Mercury capsule as 11 launch attempts were scrubbed because of problems.
My family moved for a year to Winter Park, Florida and I was in the second grade in Winter Park, Florida, just 60 miles from Cape Canaveral and the launch pad. Each attempted launch the school teachers would bring in B&W televisions for us to watch and then the disappointing delay.
At age 8 I was already interesting in astronomy and space, and I lived each launch attempt with my hero, John Glenn. A kid like me would go to sleep pretending in their bed to be throwing switches, talking to CapCom and looking out the spacecraft window. My space kid imagination was in bloom!
I went to bed on Feb. 19, 1962 dreaming again of being John Glenn and ready to blast off Earth tomorrow morning. And, I woke up with the mumps! Yep, instead of going to school, I stayed at home with Mom. And watched CBS-TV with anchor Walter Cronkite covering the launch of Mercury Friendship 7 into space.
That morning of Feb. 20 when the TV showed the Atlas rocket ignite and move (at 9:47 am), Mom and I rushed outside in the warm Florida day and I’ll never forget seeing the rocket rise above that distant horizon. It looked like a thin, white thread lacing the blue sky. Ironically, it’s the only rocket launch I’ve ever seen!
But I certainly saw more of my hero, John Glenn.
I spent the 1970s and 80s pursuing a career in journalism while taking college classes on astronomy at Ohio State University. And to help pay the bill, I was an Associated Press “stringer” working part-time nearly every day covering Ohio news out of the state Capitol with my Nikon camera. Many times I covered an Ohio Senator John Glenn press conference in Columbus and other places.
So as a professional photojournalist, I brushed shoulders with my hero four or five times. Now those were the days of no selfies (waste of a precious 24 frames of B&W film!), the AP filed my negatives away in New York City, and you never ask for autographs in the news area—so I have precious little mementos from my encounters with my space hero.
Outside of a few extra photo prints I made and set aside in my AP file box, all I have are memories. But that’s enough! Because I got to share my launch-day mumps story with Astronaut/Senator Glenn.
The first time I covered Glenn at a presser was in 1977 and he lingered around and ate with the reporters a spread of Wendy’s burgers, fries and malts (Ohio Gov. James Rhoades was an early investor in the infant restaurant chain).
The meal for the newshounds dwindled and I found myself and two others sitting with Sen. Glenn. So I nervously shared the story of me, my mumps and Mom witnessing his infamous Mercury blastoff in our backyard.
“What a fortunate time to get the mumps,” I’ll never forget John Glenn saying to me while gently grabbing my arm like friend. “Better you than me,” he said, and winked. And that big smile with such sincere eye contact. What a hero!
I’m sure there are millions of Americans he’s personally touched like me. Millions. And so humble and warm in his demeanor. Yet intelligent and commanding when in the presence of the business at hand. His unsuccessful Presidential bids in 1976 and 1984 were an attempt to recapture that spirit of the right stuff.
John Glenn is the top of the Mountain of Fame for me. How nerdy is that? And I’ve met my news-share of famous people, including plenty of other astronaut heroes.
What is also amazing about this American icon is Glenn’s second trip to space at age 77 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. The 10-day astronomy and bioscience mission with six other astronauts focused on Glenn’s health as the oldest space traveler—an age record that will stand a long test of time.
After his 3-orbits of Earth in 1962, NASA put Glenn on the shelf deeming his fame too important to risk on another death-defying space mission.
But Glenn went back to space for a 10-day mission because; well, because he was John Glenn! He wanted to do it while still in peak physical shape, and devised a whole mission profile for him to test the human body and its limits to aged astronauts.
Glenn’s triumphant mission aboard Discovery was also a huge public relations coup for NASA and its construction of the International Space Station. It worked.
The John Glenn magic was something to behold.
They are all gone now. The Mercury Seven. Their lives were among the first uniquely scrutinized by the American media as the 1960s hopes and dreams of a nation weighed on their shoulders.
They had the “Right Stuff.” Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper and Slayton. And they have all left the planet on a trajectory for eternity. God speed, my heroes!