This month marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic orbit of the earth. For a few days, the spotlight will shine again on the heroic astronaut — and, later, US senator — who helped usher in the Space Age.
For many Americans, John Glenn is a distant memory. For Westporter Jo Ann Miller, he is a lifelong friend.
Jo Ann — a realtor, marathon runner and author (“A Marathon of Changes: The Radical Transformation of a Baby Boomer“) — is the daughter of Lieutenant General Thomas H. Miller, the former head of Marine Aviation. Miller and Glenn attended flight school together, flew at Midway during World War II, and served in the same squadron in Korea (alongside Ted Williams).
The Glenn and Miller families were so close, they built houses next to each other in Arlington, Virginia. Jo Ann was there during those exciting days in 1960s. She recalls:
There were 5 postponements over a month leading up to the February 20 liftoff date. Each time, my parents, brother, sister and I got up at 4 a.m. to get our house ready for the press.
My father, granted special permission from the Marine Corps to be off during the flight, would get donuts. The rest of us set up tables and made coffee. By sunlight, hundreds of reporters and news trucks invaded our quiet neighborhood across the street from Williamsburg Middle School.
We Miller kids were allowed to be off from school, while our house turned into a media station. Meanwhile my parents and the Glenn family, along with the local pastor, stayed at their house next door watching television.
Dave and Lyn Glenn, the 2 children, occasionally visited us via the backyard. The press stampeded toward them, trying to get a story. Nancy Dickerson of NBC interviewed me at our house during the delays. It never aired, but I felt very important.
Despite the hoopla, by the 5th delay the routine got tiresome.
In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe said that Vice President Lyndon Johnson also attempted to visit the Glenn house, but Annie Glenn refused access due to shyness about her stuttering. That was a total fabrication. Not only did LBJ never visit but “Aunt Annie,” while nervous in front of the press, never refused any interview. (Thanks to a 1973 intensive program at Hollins University she now speaks freely, and has her own school of speech pathology at Ohio State).
The delays took a toll on “Uncle Johnny” too. On January 30 and February 15 he was in the capsule waiting for a countdown. He said, “I got so bored up there that I figured I might as well have some fun. So I started rocking back and forth. The rocket started to shake and it started the engineers on a mad chase to find out what was going on. It was one way to pass the time.”
Finally on February 20, with the fuel tanks fixed and the weather clear, the MA-6 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral. We all sat glued to the Glenns’ black and white television, excited but with obvious trepidation. My mother held Annie’s hand the entire time; my father paced the living room. It became especially dramatic and nerve-wracking when we were told that NASA had decided to cut the flight short due to a faulty heat shield. Finally, after over 4 hours in space, the capsule fell gently to the sea. We all relaxed.
Uncle Johnny wanted to go up into space again, but President Kennedy denied any future missions. “America needs a hero, John, and we aren’t about to lose you!” he said.
He got another chance, however, 36 years later — during in his 4th term in the Senate. At the tender age of 77, he once again flew in space. This time, the entire Glenn and Miller families were in Florida to watch liftoff. My father added commentary for NBC News. They didn’t ask me for an interview.
Last July, John celebrated his 90th birthday. He still flies his own plane, and with help from Annie helps run the John Glenn Graduate School of Public Affairs at Ohio State. He calls often, to remind me that you are only as young as you feel!