Last week we lost an American hero and the longest-serving United States Senator in Ohio history. We lost John Glenn, of New Concord, Ohio. I lost a close personal friend.
When most folks think of John Glenn, they remember that he was a famous astronaut and the first American to orbit the Earth. They may remember how he inspired our country at a time of uncertainty when the Soviet Union seemed to be winning the space race. They might even remember the grainy black-and-white images of his being escorted to Cape Canaveral by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, meeting President Kennedy, or his address to a joint session of Congress.
If that were all John Glenn had done, he would still be a true American hero. But there was so much more to him than that landmark achievement.
Before he was a famous astronaut, he was already a decorated war hero. When the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, he was a licensed pilot studying at Muskingum College. John put his plans aside, left college, and signed up to be a Marine Corps pilot, flying 59 combat missions in the Pacific Theater.
If that were all he had done, he would still have been a hero.
But he kept serving. When the Korean War broke out, he flew 90 more combat missions. His wingman was often baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who described him as “absolutely fearless…the best pilot I ever saw.” Williams felt “an intuitive feeling that this was a man destined for something great…He was one of the calmest men I have ever met, no matter how perilous the situation.”
For his skill and bravery as a pilot, John received the Distinguished Flying Cross six times. Again, if that were all he had done, he would still have been a hero.
After the war, John served as a test pilot for new military aircraft under development, and, in 1957, he broke the flight speed record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in just under three and a half hours.
Then John Glenn decided to pursue a different kind of public service and run for office. In 1974, on his third try running for the United States Senate, he won. He continued winning, representing Ohio for 24 years, longer than any Senator in Ohio history. In 1980, he won re-election by the largest margin in Ohio history.
He was a popular Senator because he was effective at getting things done.
He chaired the Government Affairs Committee for 17 years and helped pass the Inspector Generals Act, to create the office of the Inspector General in federal agencies and root out waste, fraud, and abuse. In 1995, when I was a newly-elected Congressman from Cincinnati, John Glenn and I worked on a number of projects together, including legislation we co-authored that prohibits the federal government from imposing expensive rules and regulations on states and local governments without paying for them, to curb unfunded federal mandates.
He founded the Senate Great Lakes Task Force during his third term and served as its co-chair. He authored two bills that became law to stop the spread of non-indigenous species in the Great Lakes. As his successor as Senator from Ohio, I now continue his work as Vice-Chair of this task force and I have passed two of my own bills into law to protect Lake Erie.
After John retired from the Senate in 1998, he founded the Glenn Institute of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University, later named the Glenn School. Before I ran for the United States Senate, I taught there, including co-teaching four classes. He asked me to join the Glenn School advisory board, and I’ve been a member ever since.
Last year what started as an Institute became the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. He was so proud of the College because he believed it was critical to get more young people involved in public service. In fact, the Glenn College may ultimately become his greatest achievement, because through it his legacy will be to continue to inspire and train thousands of young Ohioans to pursue public service like he did.
In October, I attended our Glenn College board meeting with John Glenn as chairman, and, as always, Annie Glenn at his side. She was not only the love of his life from their childhood, but his inseparable partner for their 73 years of marriage.
At the board meeting he was in good spirits as always, earnest as always, and devoted to public service as always. His focus was on establishing a new leadership institute for Ohio public officials. He never stopped dreaming and he never stopped serving. That was the John Glenn I was privileged to know.
Rob Portman is a U.S. senator from Ohio.