As family and invited guests gather Thursday to say goodbye to John Glenn before he is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, read this tribute from his former press secretary written by reporter Paula Christian shortly after Glenn died in December.
John Glenn liked to snack on a bowl of M&Ms he always kept on his office desk.
He would give impromptu tours of the U.S. Capitol to vacationing families he had just met.
He never left an event without staying for hours afterward to sign autographs and take photos, not just with attendees, but with the janitorial staff and kitchen crew.
As press secretary for John Glenn for five years during his long career in the U.S. Senate, Bryan McCleary’s memories of this astronaut and American hero are intimate ones.
“He was incredibly responsive to people who wanted time with him. It didn’t matter whether you were a king or a Boy Scout troop leader, he would treat you equally,” said McCleary, who is now associate director for global communications at Procter & Gamble.
McCleary was press secretary for Glenn from 1992 to 1997, and deputy press secretary for two years before that.
During those years as Glenn’s spokesman and speechwriter, McCleary came to know this larger-than-life hero as a humble man with deep character.
“I thought about him not as the national hero, but as a boss and a father figure,” McCleary said. “I remember all of the behind-the-scenes moments when the camera was off, like how whenever he flew his plane he would always look up into space.”
Glenn was a distinguished fighter pilot in two wars before becoming an astronaut and the first American to orbit the Earth. He was first elected to the Senate in 1974 and spent 2 ½ decades there.
“He was more of a statesman than a politician,” McCleary said. “He never liked a lot of inside baseball tricks that you had to sometimes perform to get legislation passed. He didn’t like horse-trading for votes. He didn’t like conflict; he liked consensus.”
That’s why Glenn was drawn to issues largely ignored by other senators – such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act in 1978, which halted the spread of nuclear weapons. This is considered to be a defining piece of legislation in Glenn's career.
Naming his son after Glenn
In 1992, while McCleary was working on Glenn’s final re-election campaign, he met a young woman, Anne Sesler, who later became his wife. She is now a political consultant in Cincinnati.
“She was in charge of field work and scheduling and I was in charge of messaging,” McCleary said. “She would help decide where he would go and I would help decide what he would say.”
The two married in 1994 and Glenn gave a thoughtful toast at their Washington, D.C., wedding.
The couple named their first son after Glenn: Christopher John.
“I wanted him to know what a great man his dad worked for and to inspire him and try to give him a sense of what John Glenn was all about,” McCleary said. “And in many ways, to me, that was the gift of curiosity and the willingness to conquer the unknown.”
During his time as press secretary, McCleary took many trips with Glenn.
On tours of Ohio to meet with constituents, they drove in Glenn’s maroon Chrysler Lebaron convertible (which McCleary later bought from Glenn “at a great price”).
On those tours, Glenn always drove with his wife, Annie, by his side, and he stopped for meals at Bob Evans Restaurants for favorites such as meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
Wherever they went, Glenn was immediately recognizable and everyone offered to buy his meals. But Glenn always graciously declined.
“People often would ask him what was his greatest accomplishment,” McCleary said. “He didn’t name a piece of legislation. He would say that what really drove him was just being a good public servant and a faithful representative to the people of Ohio.”
Glenn also loved to fly his twin-engine Beech Baron plane across Ohio.
“One of his greatest thrills was flying in his plane,” McCleary said. “I’d often catch him glancing up to space with a twinkle in his eye. That was truly the time when he was at peace - in the air.”
His goal was to land at each of the state’s 88 county airports.
“I can’t remember whether he made it or not,” McCleary said.
Back to space
Glenn returned to space in 1998 on the shuttle Discovery. At age 77, he became the oldest person to go into space.
In the months prior, McCleary remembers how Glenn would arrive at the office at 4 a.m. to study space physiology textbooks with a highlighter in hand.
“When he was looking to go back into space again, he wanted to make sure there was scientific strong justification for it,” McCleary said. “When he went to NASA to propose the trip they were amazed at the amount of data and analysis he created to make the case that this would really advance science.”
Glenn may have been a celebrity, but he wasn’t on the Washington, D.C., social circuit. In the evenings, he’d rather sit on the couch and watch television with his wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, than attend glitzy fundraisers, McCleary said.
“It was one of the true American love stories," McCleary said. "He and Mrs. Glenn were inseparable and they were just known around Washington as the most wholesome couple you could ever meet.”
When McCleary learned in 1998 that Glenn would retire from the Senate, he decided to move to Cincinnati.
“I decided on the spot that there was no politician I would ever work for again after him,” McCleary said.
“This morning as I was reflecting, I thought that his greatest peace is yet to come,” McCleary said. “As he lifts off for a final journey, it is time for us once again to say ‘Godspeed John Glenn.’”