John Glenn died yesterday, after a lifetime of service to his country. He was a Marine aviator and combat veteran of two wars, the first American to orbit the Earth, a United States Senator, and a great friend. After 95 years, his service is finally complete. It is now up to us to celebrate a life well-lived, and to honor his legacy of virtue and valor. Our hearts are heavy, but full of gratitude.
John Glenn was one of my heroes when I joined the Marine Corps 60 years ago. He still is today. He was the real article, and an ideal role model for a young fighter pilot. America needs heroes, but we don’t always do well by them. We tend to tear them down almost as soon as they appear. But John Glenn was bulletproof. Just after Pearl Harbor was attacked, 75 years ago this week, he left college to join the fight. From flying 149 combat missions to sailing the new ocean of space, he displayed courage in the face of danger to defend and advance his nation time and again. He once described it as “a dedication to purpose and a love of country, and a dedication to duty that was more important than life itself.” But he wasn’t describing himself. He was praising his fellow Marines and astronauts. It wasn’t about glory or fame for him. He didn’t do it for John Glenn. He did it for us. He did it for his country and the world.
It was an honor to work with Senator Glenn on his return to space in 1998, and to welcome the Space Shuttle Discovery into the Smithsonian with him in 2012. He was a longtime friend to this Museum, and committed to our mission to inspire the world to new heights. In 2004, we inaugurated the John H. Glenn Lecture Series to celebrate the highest level of achievement and public service.
He was one of the most accomplished Americans of his or any era, and considered the responsibility to encourage new generations his most important task, once remarking “To me, there is no greater calling … If I can inspire young people to dedicate themselves to the good of mankind, I've accomplished something.”
Our hearts are with his wife Annie and their children Dave and Lyn. Annie is herself a hero to so many, and a source of strength to John for the 73 years they shared. No account of his place in history is complete without understanding her courage and the sacrifice she made sharing him with the world.
America still needs heroes. And although we have lost our friend and countryman, we will always have our hero John Glenn.
How has the life and legacy of this national hero inspired your own life? Share your story about Senator John Glenn.