John Glenn: American Hero, Next Door Neighbor

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.

John Glenn in his capsule. The inscription on the right reads: "To Joannie -- A great 20th anniversary party! Uncle Johnny."

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.

John and Annie Glenn.

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.

President Kennedy; Lyn, Annie and John Glenn; Vice President Johnson, in Florida soon after the orbital flight.

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!

Jo Ann Miller and John Glenn in June 2010, just prior to his commencement address at Ohio State University.






6 responses to “John Glenn: American Hero, Next Door Neighbor

  1. I was in elementary school at the time, and I remember how exciting and inspirational John Glenn’s orbit was. And John Glenn was someone we all admired and looked up to.

    As we get ready for a ticker tape parade tomorrow up the “Canyon of Heroes” for the Giants, it’s good to recall the courage and accomplishments of a genuine American hero.

  2. This brings back happy memories. At that time I was in second grade at Zachary Taylor Elementary in Arlington, Va. (my older siblings went to Stratford Junior High, Williamsburg’s rival) and my family-and everyone in our neighborhood- was transfixed by John Glenn and his bravery in taking on the unknown. My mother was so excited by the prospect of space travel and she always hoped there would be a chance in her lifetime to take a a few revolutions around the earth. I still remember as though it were yesterday how my whole family sat before the black and white TV in our basement, captivated by that first landing, waiting for him to emerge from the capsule bobbing in the sea, hoping he would not be too seasick.
    We felt tremendous pride. My father was working at the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon at the time, on loan from the State Department. My mother and I admired Nancy Dickerson tremendously. My own mother had been one of the first women hired by UPI in the 40s, but she quit when she got married to follow her husband overseas. Nancy Dickerson was, I think, the first woman reporter for CBS, and she was elegant and competent and her interviews were fascinating . 30 years later I met her in Sofia, Bulgaria and told her so. I attended her funeral in New York at St Patrick’s in 1997, at which both Lesley Stahl and Diane Sawyer spoke, paying her homage for how she had led the way for them.

  3. Jo Ann Miller

    Thank you for publishing my very special memories of that day with my beloved Uncle Johnny. He and Annie are remarkable people and while both are over the age of 90 now, act, at times, like the teenagers they were when they first met. Ohio State will honor them both on the exact anniversary of his flight, February 20th.

  4. The Dude Abides

    Good tail-winds, General and Senator!!!

  5. Great story, Dan

  6. LT GEN (3Stars) MILLER has an equally outstanding military record, so it’s easy to see how they could be close friends. Congrats Jo Ann, and nice blog, Dan.