By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
Hero is a word that is too casually tossed around.
But last week a true American hero and space pioneer passed away at the age of 95. John Glenn was the epitome of humility and courage. He piloted combat missions in World War II and in Korea. He was shot down by enemy fire in 1953 but miraculously survived. He later became one of America’s greatest test pilots. In 1959 he was named as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts selected to fly into space during the earliest stages of space flight when so much was unknown and so much was improvised.
In February 1962 he flew into history becoming the first American to orbit the earth aboard Friendship 7 which was so named by Glenn himself. Having completed three successful orbits of the earth he splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after a high risk reentry into the earth’s fiery atmosphere and emerged from his tiny space capsule to the greatest acclaim since Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. He was greeted by President Kennedy and the nation. He was cheered in a ticker tape parade through lower Manhattan.
I remember that day very well. His motorcade actually took him across the FDR Drive on the way to downtown Manhattan. As a young boy of 11 living in Stuyvesant Town I recall vividly the signs along the route greeting Colonel Glenn. I was mesmerized by the moment and inspired by the man. It was still a time to believe in true heroes and the limitless possibilities of the human spirit when initiative, daring and purpose were all tied together.
In 1974, he was elected to the United States Senate from Ohio where he served for 24 years. After he retired from the Senate he actually returned to space at the age of 77 on the Space Shuttle and spent eight days in the weightless void. Never one to boast, he always played down his personal accomplishments preferring to give others the credit, especially his wife Annie of 73 years.
John Glenn was a product of the Greatest Generation made famous in the book written by Tom Brokaw. And like his spacecraft that perilously traversed the earth in 1962, Glenn lived to bridge the generations to come. I suspect that Glenn, having witnessed and done so much in his accomplished life, probably wondered how it came to pass that selfless and courageous work seems to be in such short supply while self-aggrandizement, boastful and often mean-spirited behavior on the part of some of our national figures and celebrities has become the rule rather than the exception. Ego driven politics, ideologues and petty narcissistic behavior has replaced the pure impulse for public service to advance the nation to a greater plateau.
With the death of John Glenn we might pause to reflect upon not only a remarkable life but also of a time when personal values, valor and grace under fire meant something. Without a doubt John Glenn had the right stuff. I lament that we will likely not see his kind again.