COLUMBUS, Ohio – She lived her entire life with a man who became universally revered, but to millions across the globe, Annie Glenn was her own kind of hero.
The wife of John Glenn, the former astronaut and U.S. senator, died early Tuesday at a nursing home near family in St. Paul, Minnesota, of complications from COVID-19. She was 100.
John Glenn died in 2016 at age 95 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“This is a very sad day for all Ohioans,” Gov. Mike DeWine told The Dispatch, part of the USA TODAY Network, on Tuesday morning as he prepared to sign an order to fly flags at half-staff until Annie Glenn’s service.
“Annie Glenn was certainly our most beloved Ohioan,” said DeWine, who served with her husband in the U.S. Senate. “There wouldn’t have been a John Glenn without Annie Glenn. Theirs is an inspiring love story. She represented all that is good about our country.”
Annie, as everyone knew her, lived in the shadow of fame, but emerged in midlife to become an inspiration for people with disabilities around the world by overcoming the chronic stuttering that afflicted and limited her during the years her husband was becoming a household name.
She was born Anna Margaret Castor in Columbus on Feb. 17, 1920, and her father, a dentist, moved the family to New Concord when she was 3. Her parents joined a monthly card club called “Twice 5 Club,” which included John Glenn’s parents. She and John, who was 17 months younger, shared a playpen from whence a quintessential love story would take root.
Despite her speech impediment — she stuttered 85 percent of the time — Annie was a top student and readily was accepted in the close-knit college town of New Concord, 70 miles east of Columbus in rural Muskingum County. In the sixth grade, however, she experienced her first hint of the humiliation that would haunt her through much of her life when one of the students laughed at her as she recited a poem before the class.
“I realized I was not normal,” Annie told The Dispatch in 2007. “I was lucky to have grown up where I was accepted. When I went out in the world, even to Zanesville and Cambridge, I had a lot of hurt feelings. I knew I was loved and accepted in New Concord.”
The spark between John and Annie ignited in junior high school, and they both stayed home to attend Muskingum College. Annie, a dark-eyed beauty, dreamed of being a teacher but pursued a music degree because she played the organ and could sing without stuttering.
John’s education was interrupted by World War II, but before heading off to flight training in the Marine Corps, he gave Annie an engagement ring. On her own, Annie went to Dayton in search of a job and confronted the everyday limitations of stuttering.
“I had to write out where I wanted to go and I handed it to the bus driver,” she remembered. “He thought I was deaf. He wrote back how much money I needed. Lots of people thought when my jaws sort of started shaking (as she tried to talk) that I was cold. Lots of people would turn their backs and walk away from me. I have been laughed at many times.”
Before shipping out for combat in the South Pacific on a cold January morning in 1944, John held Annie tightly, searching for the right words.
“I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum,” he said.
“Don’t be long,” she whispered, and from that day on she kept a gum wrapper in her purse.
As John’s prowess as a pilot culminated in his historic orbital flight on Feb. 20, 1962, the spotlight shone ever more intensely on the Glenn family, which by then included a son, David, and a daughter, Lyn. After becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, John and his wife were cheered in a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Celebrity pursued them relentlessly and each brush with the media and famous people painfully revealed Annie’s stuttering.
With reporters in tow after the flight, then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was intent on visiting the Glenns at their home in Arlington, Virginia, but John angered Johnson by refusing to receive him, proffering the excuse that Annie was in bed with a migraine to spare her from the attention. Even so, the Glenns became good friends with Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.
They also became close to former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and his wife, Ethel. Annie was especially fond of Bobby because of the warmth and the patience he showed when they conversed. During Kennedy’s presidential run in 1968, the Glenns were with him the night he was murdered in Los Angeles, and Ethel asked John and Annie to fly with their children back to Virginia.
Annie remembered being afraid to use the telephone and worried that she wouldn’t be able to summon help if her children were hurt, and she said that “microphones paralyzed me.” Yet when her husband was unable to campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1964 after a near-fatal head-banging fall in his Columbus bathroom, Annie bravely hit the campaign trail on his behalf, taking along Rene Carpenter, a close friend and wife of astronaut Scott Carpenter, to be her voice.
Through the years, Annie tried different treatment programs, but none worked until she and John, watching the "Today" show one morning in 1973, heard Dr. Ronald Webster, a psychologist and director of the Communications Research Institute at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, describe a new treatment he had developed for stutterers.
After three weeks away from John, Annie called him from Hollins. For the first time in 53 years, she did something she had never done before: She spoke a complete sentence without stuttering. Her husband wept.
By 1984, Annie was delivering speeches across the country on behalf of her husband’s short-lived presidential candidacy, and she devoted herself to helping other stutterers and people with disabilities.
In 1983, she received the first national award of the American Speech and Hearing Association for “providing an inspiring model for people with communicative disorders.” In 1987, the National Association for Hearing and Speech Action honored her by asking her to present the first annual Annie Glenn Award for achieving distinction despite a communicative disorder.
Roughly a decade ago, Annie, in her 80s, was invited to lecture a speech-and-hearing class at Ohio State University. Facing the students, she finally had realized her dream of being a teacher.
“The tears were rolling down my cheeks,” she later told The Dispatch.
A virtual memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. June 6, at the Broad Street Presbyterian Church, according to a news release from Ohio State.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions on large public gatherings, no parishioners or guests will be present. The service will be livestreamed online at glenn.osu.edu.
Annie Glenn will later be buried with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
Dispatch reporters Jennifer Smola and Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.
Joe Hallett is retired Dispatch senior editor.