Friendly Glenn had lots of local ties — especially in 2003

Brad Tillson is former publisher of the Dayton Daily News. He lives in North Carolina.

It was with great sadness that we heard Thursday of the passing of John Glenn, but it was also hard not to feel pride in this great, native Ohioan’s decades of amazing accomplishments — astronaut, pilot, politician, hero. Glenn had numerous ties to the Miami Valley. Today we offer reflections from two people who knew him well. — Ron Rollins

I first met John Glenn when I was a Dayton Daily News reporter in the early 1970s. John lost to Howard Metzenbaum in the 1970 Democratic primary then returned and beat Metzenbaum in the 1974 primary and went on to beat Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk in the general election. I think it’s fair to say John was not a natural politician, but he was very competitive.

At some point, John and I discovered that one of his daughter Lyn’s best friends was a classmate of mine at Denison University. That created a personal connection for me with John and Annie Glenn. Our paths crossed frequently as I rose to become editor and then publisher of the Daily News. It meant I sat in on editorial board meetings when John stopped by. Under editorial page editors Tom Teepen and Hap Cawood, these sessions were very informal events, including one time when John arrived carrying a six-pack of beer.

When John and Annie were my guests at a dinner honoring cartoonist Mike Peters they sat with my parents. Always after that whenever I was with John and Annie they would inquire about by parents. Whenever I was in Washington I would stop by John’s Senate office and, invariably, he would make time to chat, including once when I was accompanied by my daughter Karen. The resulting picture of the three of us, signed by John, is a family treasure.

Two of my involvements when I was publisher cemented our relationship. After John retired from the Senate, Ohio State University established the John Glenn Institute for Public Affairs and Public Policy. John asked me to serve on an advisory committee to help fund the institute’s headquarters. This meant we met often at Ohio State events and occasionally over dinner near the campus.

My involvement in Dayton’s Inventing Flight celebration of the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ first flight led me to ask John to serve as honorary chair. I actually made the request on a day when John was distracted by the news that he would go into space once more at the age of 77. Between the distraction and my (false) assurance that the honorary chairmanship would not involve much, John agreed. John emerged as the national face of the Dayton celebration doing numerous television and print interviews, serving on the national commission of the centennial and, in July 2003, devoting almost full-time to the two-week celebration. I particularly recall one network morning show interview when John insisted on repeating, “Dayton is the place to be in 2003,” much to the frustration of the interviewer.

John personally brought John Travolta’s star power to the Dayton event, flying with Travolta in the actor’s personal 727 at the Dayton Air Show. John spoke at the opening ceremonies and he and Annie and Neil Armstrong and his wife, Carol, joined a small group of us on the roof of Fifth Third Field for the fireworks display. I’m pretty sure John was a major reason President George W. Bush attended part of the celebration on the Fourth of July. John and Annie flew in a blimp and toured all the venues. When ticket sales at celebration central lagged, I asked John if he would be willing to be an additional attraction by signing autographs one day. He readily agreed and insisted in staying until the last person in line got an autograph.

John and Annie attended the Kitty Hawk, N.C., centennial celebration in December. It was a cold, wet day and almost totally lacking in wind. As a result, the Wright Flyer reproduction failed to get off the ground despite repeated attempts over several hours. The Glenns were VIPs and could have spent their time in a warm, dry VIP enclosure. Instead they huddled in their raincoats under their umbrellas in the bleachers with those of us from Dayton.

The John Glenn I got to know over three decades was a public servant in the old-fashioned sense. He was competitive and was not without ego, but he truly believed he was elected to serve the country he loved, to solve problems and to help people who might not be able to help themselves. He was also one-half of the most devoted couple I have ever witnessed.

Two vignettes from his days in Dayton define John Glenn for me. One is from the Dayton Air Show, where John chatted with an Air Force pilot. I think he was a member of the Air Force Thunderbirds team. They talked about flying high-performance aircraft and you could almost see John puff out his chest. Annie was with us and as we walked away John said words to the effect, “You know, I think I could still fly one of those.” Annie looked at me and rolled her eyes.

The other glimpse into the man came at a National Aviation Hall of Fame dinner. Admiral James Stockdale, the former POW and Medal of Honor recipient, and his wife, Sybil, were there and were not in good shape. At least one was in a wheelchair. John chatted with them — and when he rejoined Annie, he had tears in his eyes and he hugged her.

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