The coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than five million victims worldwide, with some 328,000 deaths, but perhaps none so poignant for followers of the U.S. space program than this week’s passing of Annie Glenn, widow of original Mercury astronaut and former Senator John Glenn of Ohio. Annie Glenn died of complications of COVID-19 at her home in an Ohio nursing care facility at the age of 100.
|Annie Glenn, activist for many causes, gone at age 100.|
Her husband was a national hero as part of the earliest U.S. group of astronauts to explore space in orbiting capsules, and later as a Democratic senator from his home state for many years. He even returned to space at age 77 as part of a shuttle Discovery mission in 1998. But Annie had her own kind of quiet courage and an impact that went far beyond the influence of her famous spouse.
At the height of John Glenn’s fame as an astronaut, Annie Glenn suffered from a speech disability so severe she was unable to speak to news interviewers, or even to grocery clerks or callers on the telephone. She stuttered so badly her children had to answer questions for her when news people invaded her home on launch days. (The disability was later diagnosed to affect 85 percent of her speech.) The stutter had been with her since childhood, though she had never been conscious of it until she rose to recite a poem in the sixth grade—and one of her classmates started laughing.
Annie and John had been friends since toddlerhood; he’d looked right past her speech problem when he asked her to marry him in 1943. As he told a Boston Globe reporter in 1982, “That never really made any difference. I don’t know, maybe it was just that we grew up together with it, and I knew the person she was and loved the person she was, and that was that.”
The Glenns went on to have two children, John David Glenn and Carolyn Ann Glenn, and two grandchildren.
Annie had originally planned to become a schoolteacher, but the stutter got in the way of that goal. She switched to music as a career, since she could sing without stuttering (much like country music star Mel Tillis) and played the organ beautifully, too. She was accepted to the prestigious Julliard School, but chose instead to stay in Ohio with John and attend Muskingum College. She graduated in 1942. (John dropped out of college to join the Marine Corps when World War II broke out.)
Throughout her early married life with John, and the years of the Mercury program, Annie made accommodations for her stutter however she could, though she admitted speaking was often an “agony” for her. “I could never get through a whole sentence,” she told The New York Times in 1980. “Sometimes I would open my mouth and nothing would come out.”
She called John and spoke with him on the phone. “He cried,” she said.
Not long afterward, Annie became an adjunct professor of speech pathology in Ohio State University’s department of speech and hearing science. In 1987 the National Association for Hearing and Speech Action created the Annie Glenn Award for achieving distinction despite a communication disorder. Annie herself gave out the first “Annie” to actor James Earl Jones that year.
Annie was also active in other organizations dedicated to the causes of speech and hearing disabilities, child abuse and literacy. She actively supported her husband’s campaigns for U.S. Senate and President, using her new-found skills as a public speaker to great advantage.As she told the Times on the campaign trail in 1983, “Now I can talk with people, and it is something I have never been able to do before. It is like a bird being let out of a cage.”
We will miss her strong voice on behalf of others. Rest in peace, Annie Glenn.
*Information for this post provided by “Annie Glenn, Champion of Those with Speech Disorders, Dies at 100,” by Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times, May 19, 2020.