Delivered on December 17, 2016, at the memorial service for Sen. John Glenn.
It is a privilege to share a few words in honor of our esteemed colleague and friend. There are those here today, who have known Senator Glenn for 60, 70, or even 90 years, but most of us knew of him long before we actually met him. We knew him through news reports and flickering images of events that were among the most spectacular we had ever witnessed.
The suspense of the countdown, the majesty of liftoff… the technical brilliance. Our nation was proud of the achievement, and proud of our brave and dashing hero. But more than that... We cared about him, personally. We prayed for him, personally; for his family, his happiness. The mission captured our minds, but John Glenn won our hearts. There were many reasons for that, foremost among them was the quality of John Glenn the man. A decorated combat veteran, a fearless test pilot, but also and importantly a dedicated husband and father. He was very much like all of us…a superhuman work ethic perhaps, but in so many other ways like our father, or brother or husband; our neighbor from New Concord, Ohio.
And he was a consummate teammate: He put complete faith in those who supported him, and then risked it all…so vulnerable and human in that tiny capsule…to show us that we could succeed.
This gave millions and millions of us the confidence to reach for our dreams.
His grounded service life, stretching over the past half century, was exemplary and inspiring. From the beginning, and throughout, he radiated authenticity and confident, perfect humility. He was the opposite of boastful. As truly outstanding people do, he let his actions speak for themselves. He was competitive, but his accomplishments were always in the context of doing his best, to do a good job. To allow himself to be a role model.
And to our everlasting fortune he returned home, to his home, to Ohio, and, after leaving office, to The Ohio State University, which he loved dearly, and served energetically and with distinction as a faculty member and elder statesman, throughout the last years of his life. We are eternally grateful.
In that context we met John Glenn during the recruitment process for this position. We were appropriately – very –flattered that he would take the time to come out to the airport on a Sunday afternoon.
But the main memory from that meeting was that we learned immediately that there was much more to him than we had realized from afar.
And that “more” was Annie.
The two of them together radiated warmth and optimism. The bond between them was palpable. In meeting Annie, we shook hands and she smiled, and didn’t let go. As we talked she held my hand, gently, for several minutes as though I were a grandson returning home.
We spoke as though we had known each other for years. And that easy open greeting welcomed us to the community.
After moving to Columbus, we had the pleasure to visit with John and Annie on several occasions, some private, some public. Two bear mention today.
The first was the dedication of the John Glenn College of Public Policy. He was passionate about education, and the college, honored that it bore his name, and thrilled at the varied backgrounds and interests of the students – tomorrow’s leaders. He was ever-present in his office, or attending events, welcoming dignitaries, always doing his best to inspire by example. A consistent unwavering theme in his life.
The dedication was on a brisk, crystal-bright spring day; the trees on the Oval bursting with new life. The excited crowd was gathered facing the steps outside Page Hall, and so large that it spilled across College Road. From the stage, the scene was of cars just visible over the heads of those in the foreground, snaking slowly through the crowd. The scene was eerily reminiscent of something that took a few minutes to grasp… and then it dawned that it looked just like a tickertape parade for an honored native son. As though it were February 1962 all over again. A sign from above of a job well done, and great things to come.
The second moment to share occurred just over a year ago. This time at a social dinner with the four of us at a local restaurant. An “old school” double date. We were talking broadly about university life and the events of the day, when the conversation turned to the 1960s, their friendships with members of the Kennedy family, and the fateful events of June 1968.
He shared a story you all know well: that after Senator Kennedy was wounded the Glenns were asked by the Kennedy family to take the five children who were with them in California back to the Kennedy home in Virginia, and to watch over them while events unfolded in Los Angeles, and they did. On the morning of the second day he got the call. And it fell to him to draw the children together to share the unspeakable news.
So, he said that he called them into a room, and sat on the edge of a bed, and then as he was reliving the moment his voice caught and he was unable to continue.
I reflexively took his hand…and I then caught myself wondering if I had inadvertently crossed a barrier of familiarity…but before I could act, he squeezed my hand, and after a pause said telling those kids their father was gone was the toughest thing he ever did, and then again took a few moments to continue.
I felt in that moment, when he was so powerful yet so vulnerable, so human, what it means to be steadfast, what it means to be reliable, to be compassionate, to be loving, and why those measures of character are so important. Why they matter so much.
And in that moment, more than flights around the planet, or the bravery of defending our nation under arms, or decades of being a servant leader in our university or our government could reveal, in that moment he exemplified the transcendent beauty of true courage.
As we bask in the glow of greatness we are uplifted and inspired.
Inspired because we too can be steadfast and true, we can be compassionate. He lived an outstanding life in a way that exemplified the value and power of being our best. We can honor him by doing what we can, every day, to be our best selves. There can be no more powerful or impactful legacy. A man for the ages leaves us a message for the ages. Godspeed, John Glenn. Godspeed indeed.
View the archive of President Drake’s speeches and statements.