John Glenn and the Limits of Possibility

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, a World War II and Korean War veteran, Navy test pilot, and United States Senator for a tenure of 24 years, died on Thursday. He was 95.

As a native Ohioan, I grew up admiring John Glenn. Glenn achieved an almost mythically larger-than-life status in American culture when he returned from space in 1962. From his journey in orbit on, Glenn continued to make Ohio and the United States proud. Both because of his incredible achievements and the way he handled himself with humility and plain-spoken grace, Glenn was an ideal role model.

He embodied so many characteristics teachers and parents want young people to learn about—and he was a homegrown legend. Having studied history for the last four years, my perspective on why John Glenn is a hero has changed. My conviction that Glenn’s legacy is important and my belief in the inspirational power of his life story, however, is unaltered.

Glenn was a lionhearted warrior, an undaunted explorer, and a judicious statesman. He was a hero in traditional modes perhaps unrivaled by any American in the last century. Tom Wolfe wrote that he was “the last true national hero America has ever had.”

He was admired by President Kennedy and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama. To use another of Wolfe’s phrases, he simply had “the right stuff.” Americans could believe in John Glenn.

It’s hard to feel idealistic admiration for public figures today. The “Great Man” theory of history has fallen out of favor, and with good reason. The truth is the United States did not win the space race because of John Glenn alone. An uncountable number of people contributed to his accomplishments. He was, as we all are, a flawed human being. He lost two races for the Presidency. But John Glenn was a hero.

For 75 years, from the time he dropped out of college to enlist in the military until his death, John Glenn was a public servant. He was a fighter pilot in two wars, then a Navy and Marine test pilot, before being selected as one of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts. His famous orbit of earth was the culmination of twenty years of extraordinary feats of daring.

Glenn announced he would run for the Senate the day he retired from NASA in 1964, though he wasn’t elected until 1974. In 1998, while still a sitting Senator, he returned to space at age 77, the oldest person ever to do so. After officially retiring from the Senate, he helped found the John Glenn Institute for Public Service and Public Policy (now the John Glenn College of Public Affairs) at The Ohio State University where he taught. He continued to give lectures and visit schools, including my elementary school, until the end of his life.

John Glenn had one of the most impressive resumes in history. But accomplishments and accolades aside, the sheer immensity of Glenn’s devotion to others—whether measured in time, energy, or personal risk—was itself heroic.

In this winter of discontent and divisiveness, Glenn’s passing is a reminder that an optimistic vision of America is possible. Without turning Glenn into a marble demigod or valorizing the cultural milieu from which he came, for that we be dishonest and a disservice to the man, I admire his human courage and his unwavering commitment to causes greater than himself. I respect the way he used his celebrity to create a platform from which he could unselfishly multiply his ability to do good.

And I try to remember, without having lived through his most historic accomplishments myself, what it was like to be inspired by a humble individual who dared to test the limits of possibility.


Harrison K. Wexner ’17 is a history concentrator living in Adams House.

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