COLUMBUS, Ohio — The nation’s Vice President and a retired Marine Corps general were among the dignitaries, family members and other mourners who choked up Dec. 17 during a memorial tribute to the late space hero John Glenn.
Roughly 2,500 people gathered at Mershon Auditorium on the Ohio State University campus for “a celebration of life” for the former fighter pilot, history-making astronaut and longtime Democratic U.S. senator from small-town Ohio.
He was remembered not only for bravery, but for his thoughtful consideration for others, his integrity and his patriotic optimism.
“I think John defined what it meant to be an American, what we were about, just by how we acted,” said Vice President Joe Biden, a former colleague of Glenn’s in the U.S. Senate. “It was always about the promise. We were a country of possibility, opportunity, always a belief in tomorrow.”
Retired USMC Gen. John Dailey said Glenn was “never in it for himself,” but always acted for the nation’s greater good. Like many others, he recalled Glenn’s humility and basic kindness.
“We had John for 95 great years and it still wasn’t enough,” Dailey said.
Glenn died Dec. 8 at age 95. He was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, and then in 1998 became the oldest person in space at 77.
Thousands of people, including Democratic U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visited the Ohio Statehouse on Friday as Glenn lay in honor.
A solemn funeral procession through the center of the capital city carried his casket past more mourners willing to withstand cold and ice.
Ethel Kennedy, widow of close Glenn ally Robert F. Kennedy, and their son Robert F. Kennedy Jr., were among the mourners present, along with Ohio political leaders including Gov. John Kasich and former Govs. Ted Strickland and Richard Celeste.
The service was preceded by recordings of hymns, arias and popular songs. Some — including Nat King Cole’s Smile and Susan Boyle’s version of Impossible Dream — nodded to Glenn’s trademark optimism.
Others, including You Are My Sunshine, Moon River and Shirley Jones singing Goodnight, My Someone — recalled Glenn’s long love affair with wife, Annie, who survives him.
Their marriage was cited frequently as a source of Glenn’s strength and an inspiration to those who have known and watched the couple for 73 years.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a fellow Democrat who first met Glenn when he was a teenage Eagle Scout, called Glenn “an FDR Democrat” who believed in the power of government and the importance of public service — through his military and space career and his tenure in the Senate.
“He was a work horse, never a show horse,” Brown said. “He labored over the details of non-proliferation and environmental cleanup of nuclear disposal sites, grunt work to some, but John was content to spend his time not on collecting instant headlines but achieving lasting results that would leave the world better than he had found it.”
Brown’s wife, journalist Connie Schultz, recalled his tenderness when their grandson was curious about how astronauts urinate in space. She saw it as example for the nation.
“If American icon John Glenn could take the time to treat a child with such respect, surely we can find the time to listen to one another,” she said.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. said the U.S. space program remains indebted to Glenn.
“It was courage, grace and humility John displayed throughout his life that lifted him above the stars,” Bolden said.
“As the current head of NASA, I can say unequivocally that we are standing on John Glenn’s shoulders as we pursue a human journey to Mars, a journey that would not be possible without his bravery and selfless dedication.”
Glenn’s son, David, said his father let him find himself and make his own mistakes — even when he came home with long hair and wearing bell bottom pants.
“He might have blinked twice, or his face twitched or something like that. But that was it,” he said.
Daughter Lyn said she wanted an “atta girl” for some good grades she brought home at age 8, to which Glenn replied, “Yes, but what have you done for your country today?”
She said Glenn refused a deal worth as much as $5 million to have his photo placed on a Wheaties box because he saw it as making money from government service.
She ended a touching recollection with a simple farewell, Godspeed, Dad.
Taps was played as Glenn was carried from the auditorium. He’ll be buried at Arlington Cemetery near Washington, D.C., in a private ceremony this spring.
(JULIE CARR SMYTH)