Roy Exum: My Hero, Annie Glenn

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Oh, my goodness, it was in the early ‘80s when I was introduced to one of my greatest heroes, Annie Glenn. I was in an editorial meeting in New York, where at a luncheon of 15 or 20 people at a swank restaurant called ‘Tavern on the Green,’ editors of a famous magazine were pitching possible stories to a couple of other writers and myself. Back in the day, I loved my job at the Chattanooga News-Free Press but my grandfather knew I was being courted by some big names and allowed me the room to do some free-lance writing, which returned some extra bucks yet, more importantly, gave me grasp of the blessings God had bestowed. It made life a little more thrilling as well. Can you imagine your byline in 26 languages? Me too.
Ever since that day I have kept up with Annie Glenn, whose husband John became one of American’s greatest heroes of all time.
In 1962, he was the first American to orbit the Earth, circling it three times. John Glenn, in my generation, was the “Real Stuff,” but after that luncheon on a sunny afternoon in New York, his aura paled in the face of his Annie Glenn, who I was later able to meet twice. In case you don’t know, the coronavirus claimed the life of Annie, this three months after her 100th birthday, yesterday in a Minnesota hospital
John Glenn, the United States Marine Corps aviator (flew 90 combat missions,) engineer, astronaut, businessman, and politician, died in 2016 at the age of 95. Nobody anywhere, regardless of country, land nor sea, could equal John Glenn’s bravery, his discipline, his resolve, his integrity, or his character, none – nowhere -- except from the girl who shared his playpen almost 100 years ago in New Concord, Ohio. John’s dad was a plumber, Annie’s was a dentist, and the two young families became glorious neighborhood friends, not a one knowing the two children in that playpen would never go on a date with any other another person, nor let alone any interloper dare defile their 77 years of marriage.
Let’s flash back: In my now 50-plus years as a writer, I beg you to read two stories far nobler than my pencil. I’m past thinking I need to honk my horn because, as I was once whispered, “Son, a Cadillac never has screeched its tires.” Instead, let’s embrace two pros:
* * *
(Here’s the magic of this one: On February 23, 1985 – “The Unsinkable Annie Glenn” – was brilliantly included in that day’s editions of the Washington Post. As I recall, on that day I wept and have carried a copy in my bulging satchel or my file box for – what – 35 years? That's how much I adore Annie. Why? Dive in, you’ll find the waters are warm):
By Myra MacPherson, The Washington Post, February 23, 1984
THE SCENE in "The Right Stuff": John Glenn sits for five hours in the Friendship 7 capsule, then the mission is scrubbed because of heavy cloud cover. In the NASA hangar, encased in a silver spacesuit, he listens on the phone as his wife, Annie, a severe stutterer, haltingly delivers her message--Vice President Lyndon Johnson is outside asking to be let in and she can't deal with it.
As Tom Wolfe told it in his book, Johnson was panting to "pour ten minutes of hideous Texas soul all over her on nationwide TV." The astronaut's reply to his wife: "Look, if you don't want the vice president or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that's it, as far as I'm concerned. 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!"
In theaters around the country last fall, spontaneous applause erupted, sending tremors through other Democratic presidential candidates as many speculated--before Glenn's stunning fade--that this scene alone could garner thousands of votes. It is pure Americana: astronaut ace standing up to the vice president for his little wife, sappily--and incorrectly--caricatured by Hollywood as an insignificant shadow. NOTE: To see a clip from the movie “The Right Stuff" of the famous phone call, click here.
Those who do not know the Glenns sometimes remark that Glenn must truly be admirable to have married a woman so handicapped. There is one thing wrong with that view. Anyone who meets Annie Glenn agrees that, yes, there must be something special about her husband.
If Annie Glenn picked him, he can't be all bad.
It is 22 years later. Twenty-two years after America's first orbital flight, after the confetti-strewn Manhattan ticker-tape parade, the adulation of presidents and royalty. People around the world wept when Glenn landed safely in the sea. They named streets, bridges, libraries after John Glenn.
Anna Castor Glenn is 64 now. Her salt and pepper gray hair flows from an arresting face; large brown eyes, high cheekbones, warm smile. She stands at a microphone and the audience strains to hear her soft voice. Soon, the coughs and rattling of luncheon silver stop. Few speakers are greeted with such stillness. At the end, there are tears.
"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. A stuttering problem I have had since childhood." Annie Glenn speaks slowly but hesitates only on a few words and people in the room raise eyebrows in surprise at her confession.
They cannot begin to know what those years of silence were like, when she had an 85 percent speech disability. A simple phone call filled her with terror. When her daughter stepped on a nail and blood gushed from the deep wound, Annie was unable to speak a coherent word into the phone and frantically had to search out a neighbor to call the hospital. It was a time when "a trip to the store or a casual gathering of friends would present a terrifying threat." For years, her husband would take grocery and repair lists to the office and phone in orders. If they went out for dinner, she would either have to point at the menu, or Glenn would have to order for her. She knew the snubs--from salesclerks to senators, who would turn their backs on her, assuming she was deaf or retarded.
"When John went into politics, the pressure got even greater," recalls Annie. "There were always public events, always crowds and always well-meaning people who went out of the way just for the chance to talk with us. Out of sheer frustration I vowed that someday, somehow, I would be able to give a speech for John.
“Those were difficult times for me," she adds, softly. "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." Ten years ago, she heard of a revolutionary treatment for stutterers. This one worked; by 1978 she was speaking slowly, purposefully, but speaking. "As I learned in my own victory . . ." Her voice cracks with emotion. Many in the audience blink back tears as she ends with, "My own victory over those years of silence--that is the essence of truly living."
Today, Annie Glenn is an active participant in her husband's campaign--visiting the elderly, giving speeches about his qualities and stands on issues, what he would do for women if elected. After Iowa's bloodying, with Glenn finishing a poor fifth, the couple tried to put the best face on it. They were off to New Hampshire--the primary that "really" counts.
After her speeches, Annie Glenn reaches out with both arms to shake hands with those who line up to meet her. Aides have given up trying to hurry her out of a room. "We've left more events after the waiters," cracks Ted Rogers, the Glenn aide who watches over Annie Glenn with fierce affection. People wait in line to talk--no, not talk, to confide in her, as they do no other candidate's wife.
Finally, driving off in a car, Annie Glenn still seems awed by the reaction she always induces. Her husband's campaign, which once seemed the major challenge to Walter Mondale, has become a matter of survival; but Annie Glenn is sought out time and again. A woman tells her that she has lost confidence, that people keep tearing her down. "She told me that after listening to me she has a new lease on life."
Another stutterer showed up to tell Annie Glenn she was starting therapy. "I didn't expect this. It really is sort of scary. Some conversations can be very emotional. One mother had brought her daughter, a stutterer, to an event last spring. She came back to tell me that her daughter can now say her 'S's.' " Annie Glenn stumbles slightly on the sound. "The girl is 12. It really is worth everything to be able to help people."
She suddenly looks out the window and tears form. "There are other types of lives I didn't realize I was going to affect. A lady in Alabama had horrible scars all over her face. She had been accidentally scalded when she was two and had been so ashamed all her life. She came up to me and told me how she had changed her whole attitude."
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. Afterwards, 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.
In politics, where insincerity is often masked by surface warmth, Annie Glenn is genuine; it is not hyperbole to say, "everyone loves Annie." Her longtime friend, Rene Carpenter, former wife of astronaut Scott Carpenter, says, "She goes right to the heart of things. She's not only listened for 60 years, she's watched. She'd see people saying, 'Oh, don't you just love her?' and all the while they were looking around with a 'how-can-I-get-out-of-this' look, searching for the next person."
Instead of becoming bitter, Annie Glenn today stops others from speaking ill. "For example," says Carpenter, "one day everyone was talking about the new Mrs. George Wallace, rolling their eyes, making catty remarks and Annie said quietly, 'Do you know that woman is working on her masters in child psychology, she manages the children, etc.' Always positive, that's Annie."
The mousy portrayal in "The Right Stuff" did not in any way capture Annie Glenn. Despite the handicap that brought terror and disability, she was an extrovert, with a zest for life. She could joke with friends and family, who learned to listen patiently while she got out what she wanted to say. "Most people just wouldn't let her get into that second gear," says Carpenter. "She never was shy.
She may have been terrified inside about how she would communicate, but she always worked a room." She was a loving disciplinarian with her children, worked as an organist during the anonymous years as the wife of a Marine fighter pilot, and was an active partner during those incredible astronaut years when fame came so fast.
And all the while, Annie was struggling with her stuttering. Bob Hope wanted her on his show with the other astronauts' wives. They wrote out a script, but she couldn't do it. "So, Bob Hope asked me a question that I could either answer yes or no. When we had gone on the air, I wanted to speak--even if it was just going to be a try. And there was no way to tell anybody. I was really disappointed with myself for not trying," she recalls today. "That, I will never, ever forget."
"I'm continually amazed at my mother," says Lyn, the Glenn’s' married daughter, who campaigns for her father. "To use the word pride would not even be appropriate. She is really one of a kind. I can remember being 15 and watching three people I recognized as leaders on Capitol Hill standing next to my mother at a reception. One of them asked her a question and when she tried to respond all three turned and walked away. That was the beginning of my realizing that just because you're famous or have some status doesn't mean you're a nice person."
There is pain in Annie Glenn's eyes as she recalls those days, but she refuses to denigrate anyone. "That's her weakness," says Lyn, "but also her strength." Annie recalls one of the few times she became angered in those days. "This one man was tearing down another with just ugly, ugly untruths. Well, I tore into him and told him off. My speech just got so smooth." She laughs. "I guess I should have gotten angry more often."
Glenn is watching as his wife is interviewed on Boston television. The familiar squint-eyed Huck Finn face crinkles into a smile. "It is like a rebirth for her," he says. "When she gave her first speech, I wanted to hear her so bad it hurt. But I didn't go. I didn't want her leaning on a crutch. All her life she's had intensive therapy, and nothing worked." Then one day Glenn heard on a news program of Dr. Ronald Webster of the Communications Research Institute at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va.
"It changed her life. This is a whole new thing that works with 80-percent stutterers. His theory is that speech patterns are set to a large degree by what we hear in audio feedback through our ears. If there is something weak in that hook-up, you go back and retrain it. The first week they speak in two-second syllables." Glenn flicks a stopwatch on his wristwatch and draws out the words. 'Youuuuu tryyyy tooo talllkkk' . . . That's the speed," he says, flicking off the stopwatch. "The next week, they speak in one second syllables and the third week, they speak the way Annie talks, which is called 'slow normal.' For certain explosive sounds, like the hard 'k', they learn what is called 'soft onset.' " Glenn glides into the word "king" as would a singer, with a soft approach. "Annie will have to practice all her life."
She has learned to relax her throat; to halt the involuntary tightening of muscles, she sips water often. She practices the tough sounds, F's and V's and S's, and a machine monitors her mistakes. The phone is still something of a menace; she refuses to do phone interviews. At the end of a tiring day, she tried to say the word "flaunt" and stumbled over it, "fffflll" She laughs, ruefully, "See, there are the 'f' 'l's together.
John and Annie Glenn have known each other for 60 years. A friendship that began in playpens in New Concord, Ohio, turned into puppy love in grade school. Glenn likes to joke that he fell in love with an older woman (she is one year older) who was taller than he. By high school, he had shot up past Annie, but the romance continued. It sounds like the stuff of Andy Hardy, but he never dated anyone else, and Annie only had one other date. Recalled Lloyd White, who became a minister and later married the couple, "John got in such a huff he wouldn't speak to me for a week."
Mocked in the "Right Stuff" for his straight-arrow morality, for chastising other astronauts for flings with space groupies, Glenn is considered a bit of a square even by his best friends. A religious man who can't always avoid the pitfalls of preachiness. A man who weeps over sentimental songs, who says, "by golly" and "you betcha" and grace before dinner. A man who unabashedly proclaims the old-fashioned virtues.
But there is a fun-loving side to Glenn that has not emerged in his stiff debate performances or in his attacks against Mondale. If there is a tendency to stuffiness, Annie Glenn curbs it. Glenn tells the story about a banquet when he was introduced as "one of the few truly great men in the world who are still living." On the way home he was musing to his wife in a self-satisfied way how there really were few great men in the world still living. Annie shot back, "That's right--and I'll tell you one thing--there's sure as heck one less than you think."
Glenn is a keen mimic. Heading home from New Hampshire, he screws up his face and says "E.T. Go Home," taking on an amazing resemblance to the extra-terrestrial creature. "He's a nut," Annie says with a giggle, as Glenn taunts a photographer who has been trying for weeks to get him in a crazy pose with a silly hat. This night, he steps out of a kitchen in a New Hampshire restaurant wearing a chef's hat--flipping it off just when the photographer tries to take the picture.
On the plane, Glenn settles into a Jack Daniel's. Aides try to keep the conversation to 10 minutes, to get on with political interviews, but he very much wants to talk about his wife, and time stretches on. He has heard those who wonder how he could have married a woman so handicapped. "I never knew Annie when she didn't stutter. I knew her to be the kind and compassionate soul that she is. Sure, she had a handicap, but there's so much more to her than just that. I figured we're all handicapped one way or another.
"She felt the snubs, she was very self-conscious at times. But we decided it's our lives and that's how we're going to live it. If it involved kings and queens and presidents, that's the way it is. She didn't let it hold her back. Everywhere she went she was the organist in chapel and church. She was honorary chairman of an Ohio nursing home and got all fired up about the old folks and spent one week living with them--and then she stayed for a second week. She has great empathy."
Glenn recalls how he was halfway around the world in China when he got the news that his wife was seriously ill after giving birth to their daughter. He remembers having doubts about the kind of life they were living but, he adds, a bit stiff-upper-lip, "Annie was part of that sacrifice and she knew it when I signed up. She had her eyes wide open."
As for that scene, where Glenn stands up to NASA to keep Vice President Johnson at bay, there are conflicting versions. "Glenn's chivalrous support of Annie had little to do with her stuttering and nothing to do with Johnson's 'hideous Texas soul,' " wrote Frank Van Riper in "Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President." " Van Riper contends that Glenn, mindful of the exclusive Life contract with the astronauts, was aware that reporters camped outside finally would be able to come in along with the vice president. Life reporter Loudon Wainwright was already in the home. Glenn told Van Riper that the Life contract had something to do with it.
"For reasons I never quite understood," said Glenn, the vice president would not come in the house unless Wainwright was out. "That was the big question: was Loudon going to be kicked out of the house? . . . I just told them to do whatever Annie wanted, and that whatever agreement we had made before still stood." Annie says emphatically today, "It was nothing against Vice President Johnson. And he was not parked outside of our house. I was getting a severe migraine and just didn't want to talk to anyone."
In speeches, Annie tells women it would be a better world for them if her husband were in the White House--he is for the ERA, has not backed down on pro-choice despite antiabortion activists, is attuned to the "ever-present problem of child care." Says his wife, "flex-time and part-time career schedules will finally get full endorsement from the top." He champions expanded home health care for the elderly, many of whom are women, says Annie. She speaks to the gender gap and women's concerns about war. "I promise you no one will work harder to keep world peace."
After one speech, Annie settles into a hotel room, tossing her fur-lined coat on a chair. After those struggling military days, her husband's stint with Royal Crown and Questor corporations made him a millionaire. She dresses tastefully, lives in comfort in Potomac, has a condominium in Vail, Colo. But New Concord never seems far away.
Her self-esteem and security come from her childhood. "Everyone just accepted me. I had a severe speech handicap, but that was just a part of me. I had complete love from my parents. Her father, a dentist, also stuttered. And then John's support. Muskingum College which both she and Glenn attended was right in our hometown. I didn't get out into the really cruel world until I graduated and went to look for a job, clear across the state in Dayton.
"I majored in music and had a minor in secretary skills and was very good at shorthand and typing and had three years of accounting. I made up my mind I was going to get a job. One college professor knew I couldn't have an interview but that I could do a good job. I was scared to death, but I went and showed them the letter and I was hired." When she went to get the bus ticket to Dayton, Annie asked, in writing, how much it cost. The ticket clerk, thinking she was deaf, wrote back the answer.
There is an ambitious, tough side to Glenn, and he appears strident and counter-productive these days when he attacks Mondale. Only once does Annie Glenn look angry and it is when political name-calling is discussed. She is annoyed at Mondale for saying her husband is similar to Reagan. "John led the fight, as you've heard him say, against the MX and other things. He is not like Reagan, all over the place. Mondale is just completely wrong there--but he'll keep plugging away at it. They have to say something."
Much has been written about the bitterness between Glenn and President Carter. Glenn felt he was being left on the hook as a vice presidential choice well after Carter had picked Mondale, according to some accounts. Moreover, Richard Reeves reported in "Convention" that Rosalynn Carter considered Annie a negative because she stuttered and would not be an effective campaigner. Carter aides to this day strongly deny the allegation.
But Annie Glenn's eyes lose their sparkle when she recalls the 1976 race. "To tell you the truth, I didn't want John to have that job anyway," she says, dismissing the subject. If Mondale became the nominee and offered the vice-presidential spot to Glenn would she want that? "Not as far as I'm concerned," she says tersely. Not even if he could strengthen the ticket? "I think John is the only one who can beat Reagan. Politics is always changing; unexpected things happen, but I would not want John in that spot. He can do more as a United States senator."
On the campaign, Glenn is still a hero, is still asked for his autograph. The astronaut image, however, is proving detrimental--in fact, overwhelms other achievements; people feel he has done nothing much since then. As the campaign slips, Annie Glenn, at least, has gained much from the contest. In each speech, she gets stronger, surer of herself. She will continue to work for the elderly, to speak out for the handicapped, to find a following she never knew in her days of silence.
And no matter the political blows, John and Annie Glenn have a marriage that has survived defeat as well as heady victories. In 1964, Glenn, the space hero, suffered the ultimate incongruity, slipping on a bathmat and injuring his inner ear. The illness wrecked his political bid for the U.S. Senate and put the Glenn’s in debt. Before he withdrew, Annie tried to keep the campaign afloat, meeting in painful sessions with aides and supporters. The Glenn’s suffered months of uncertainty; doctors could not predict if he would fully recover. In 1970 he tried again, lost, but won in 1974. He was overwhelmingly reelected in 1980.
Annie Glenn speaks of her husband, after all these years, with a special warmth, remembering long years of togetherness. "He is so kind, so special . . . So, patient. He always took the time to listen."
* * *
Please, allow me one more. Some years ago. writer Bob Greene was a syndicated writer and had a colossal following on CNN and other places. I read everything I could that he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and he was gifted as all get out. Yes, we knew one another, and I envied his talent:
* * *
By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
(Note: This story was written in 2012, and then revisited upon the death of John Glenn in 2016. It was written by CNN contributor Bob Greene, author of the books "Late Edition: A Love Story" and
"Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen" -- was originally published in February 2012. John Glenn died Thursday at 95. His wife, Annie, is 96.)
(CNN) -- For half a century, the world has applauded John Glenn as a heart-stirring American hero. He lifted the nation's spirits when, as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, he was blasted alone into orbit around the Earth; the enduring affection for him is so powerful that even now people find themselves misting up at the sight of his face or the sound of his voice.
But for all these years, Glenn has had a hero of his own, someone who he has seen display endless courage of a different kind:
Annie Glenn.
They have been married for 68 years.
He is 90; she turned 92 on Friday.
This weekend there has been news coverage of the 50th anniversary of Glenn's flight into orbit. We are being reminded that, half a century down the line, he remains America's unforgettable hero.
He has never really bought that.
Because the heroism he most cherishes is of a sort that is seldom cheered. It belongs to the person he has known longer than he has known anyone else in the world.
John Glenn and Annie Castor first knew each other when -- literally -- they shared a playpen.
In New Concord, Ohio, his parents, and hers were friends. When the families got together, their children played.
John -- the future Marine fighter pilot, the future test-pilot ace, the future astronaut -- was pure gold from the start. He would end up having what it took to rise to the absolute pinnacle of American regard during the space race; imagine what it meant to be the young John Glenn in the small confines of New Concord.
Three-sport varsity athlete, most admired boy in town, Mr. Everything.
Annie Castor was bright, was caring, was talented, was generous of spirit. But she could talk only with the most excruciating of difficulty. It haunted her.
Her stuttering was so severe that it was categorized as an "85%" disability -- 85% of the time, she could not manage to make words come out.
When she tried to recite a poem in elementary school, she was laughed at. She was not able to speak on the telephone. She could not have a regular conversation with a friend.
And John Glenn loved her.
Even as a boy he was wise enough to understand that people who could not see past her stutter were missing out on knowing a rare and wonderful girl.
They married on April 6, 1943. As a military wife, she found that life as she and John moved around the country could be quite hurtful. She has written: "I can remember some very painful experiences -- especially the ridicule."
In department stores, she would wander unfamiliar aisles trying to find the right section, embarrassed to attempt to ask the salesclerks for help. In taxis, she would have to write requests to the driver, because she couldn't speak the destination out loud. In restaurants, she would point to the items on the menu.
A fine musician, Annie, in every community where she and John moved, would play the organ in church as a way to make new friends. She and John had two children; she has written: "Can you imagine living in the modern world and being afraid to use the telephone? 'Hello' used to be so hard for me to say. I worried that my children would be injured and need a doctor. Could I somehow find the words to get the information across on the phone?"
John, as a Marine aviator, flew 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 during the Korean War. Every time he was deployed, he and Annie said goodbye the same way. His last words to her before leaving were:
"I'm just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum."
And, with just the two of them there, she was able to always reply:
"Don't be long."
On that February day in 1962 when the world held its breath and the Atlas rocket was about to propel him toward space, those were their words, once again. And in 1998, when, at 77, he went back to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, it was an understandably tense time for them. What if something happened to end their life together?
She knew what he would say to her before boarding the shuttle. He did -- and this time he gave her a present to hold onto:
A pack of gum.
She carried it in a pocket next to her heart until he was safely home.
Many times in her life she attempted various treatments to cure her stutter. None worked.
But in 1973, she found a doctor in Virginia who ran an intensive program she and John hoped would help her. She traveled there to enroll and to give it her best effort. The miracle she and John had always waited for at last, as miracles will do, arrived. At age 53, she was able to talk fluidly, and not in brief, anxiety-ridden, agonizing bursts.
John has said that on the first day he heard her speak to him with confidence and clarity, he dropped to his knees to offer a prayer of gratitude.
He has written: "I saw Annie's perseverance and strength through the years and it just made me admire her and love her even more." He has heard roaring ovations in countries around the globe for his own valor, but his awe is reserved for Annie, and what she accomplished: "I don't know if I would have had the courage."
Her voice is so clear and steady now that she regularly gives public talks. If you are lucky enough to know the Glenns, the sight and sound of them bantering and joking with each other and playfully finishing each other’s sentences is something that warms you and makes you thankful just to be in the same room.
Monday will be the anniversary of the Mercury space shot, and once again people will remember, and will speak of the heroism of Glenn the astronaut.
But if you ever find yourself at an event where the Glenns are appearing, and you want to see someone so brimming with pride and love that you may feel your own tears start to well up, wait until the moment that Annie stands to say a few words to the audience.
And as she begins, take a look at her husband's eyes.
* * *
God’s speed, Annie Glenn.
Annie Glenn
Annie Glenn

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