They say he was the Last American Hero. John Glenn--astronaut, politician, national icon--passed away yesterday at the age of 95.
Tom Wolfe described him and his fellow Mercury explorers as having "the Right Stuff," in his 1979 book. In these days when the country seems as divided as most of us ever remember it being, it's a fitting tribute to remember Glenn, and to ask exactly what the "Right Stuff" really means.
For while Wolfe referred to kind of courage that test pilots needed in order to take on an almost suicidal mission repeatedly, there's more to it here. Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, demonstrated his own inspiring mixture of admirable and worthy traits.
Here are eight that are worth remembering and imitating.
1. A devotion to love.
Glenn met his wife when they were toddlers. They were married for 73 years, had two children, and by all accounts had a good marriage. As Glenn wrote in his autobiography, ""she was a part of my life from the time of my first memory."
Imagine all the time many people spend looking for the right soul mate. Now imagine how productive you might be if you'd found your life partner at age 3!
2. A dedication to duty.
Glenn became a household name because of his service as an astronaut; he became an astronaut only after he'd been a Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea. He dropped out of college to joined the military right after Pearl Harbor, and was awarded five Distinguished Flying Crosses and flew at least 123 combat missions.
His nickname in the Marines? "Magnet Ass" for being shot at so much.
3. A thirst for daring.
Space travel is dangerous now. Two out of 100 space shuttle missions ended in disaster; imagine if one in 50 airplane trips or car rides ended with a fatal accident! In the 1960s, space travel was nearly insane.
As Wolfe put it, he wrote about people like Glenn because he wanted to know what "makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle... and wait for someone to light the fuse."
4. An appreciation for vocation.
After his historic flight, NASA wouldn't let Glenn fly again--out of fear of losing an American hero in an accident. So, he left the space program, and wound up working for a in Corporate America for a decade--the first time he and his wife weren't worried about money, he later told an aide.
However, he left it behind for what he saw as a higher vocation: pubic office.
5. An understanding of imagery.
Throughout his career, Glenn had the image of an almost unbelievably squeaky clean Boy Scout. He understood the power of image in leadership, and how to communicate with large groups of people. It's part of what led him to be elected four times to the Senate--in fact, the longest-serving senator from Ohio.
It's also clear he understood the power of this image, and used it to his advantage.
6. A demonstration of resiliency.
Glenn lost his first two campaigns for office, but he was eventually was a successful senator. Then, his campaign for the vice-presidency in 1976 and for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 came up short.
He clearly coveted higher office, and was seen as a potential candidate in every election until after President Clinton was elected.
7. A demonstration of humility.
Glenn was involved in one big controversy in his public life--being named as one of the senators in the Keating 5 campaign finance scandal in 1989.
Although more of a footnote now, this was a big corruption scandal at the time, and scarred Glenn's reputation. However, he won reelection to the Senate the following year, and put it all behind him.
8. An appreciation of his longevity.
At age 77, Glenn went back to space--as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998. Officially, his role was to be a human guinea pig, the subject of tests to determine the effects of space travel and weightlessness on older people.
Unofficially, besides a personal desire to return to space, his job was to be an inspiration to older people--proof that age doesn't have to define everything.