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John Glenn: A Tribute

December 19, 2016

On December 17th we bid our last “Godspeed” to a true American hero, John Glenn, with a memorial service that took place in his home state of Ohio. He will eventually be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., among our nation’s finest.

This past December 7th was the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, which launched the U.S. into World War II. When that harrowing event occurred, a young John Herschel Glenn quit college and enlisted into the Army Air Corps to serve and defend. And for the next 75 years he never stopped serving. So it is somewhat fitting that this genuine American icon lived just long enough to see his country honor and remember this day, only to pass away the day after on December 8, 2016, at age 95.

When I was a little boy growing up in Fairfield, Alabama, during the 1950s and 60s, I was utterly fascinated by America’s space program. My heroes were all of the American astronauts beginning with the original Mercury 7, especially the young and accomplished John Glenn. And accomplished he was. By that point he had already flown as a distinguished fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. And the accomplishments kept coming. By 1962 Glenn became our third man in space and made history by being the first American to orbit the earth three times. It was an incredible feat in those early days of spaceflight. From that moment on I never once missed a launch and dreamed of journeying into space, just like aviator Glenn and all the brave astronauts that followed. Alas, a heart murmur made my dream impossible, but I never stopped imagining what it would be like to soar among the stars. Even after becoming United States Attorney I tried to convince the folks at NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville that the only way I could adequately represent them as one of our client agencies was to learn everything about their work by going up in the Space Shuttle. I had a better chance with the heart murmur.

But I was certainly not alone in my admiration. It seems that the space program and those who were the faces of it captured the hearts and minds of everyone like nothing before or nothing since. With each launch or splashdown work and play paused, school was interrupted and folks everywhere held their breath in anticipation. And we let out a collective sigh of relief as we applauded each successful mission. At a time of serious divisions, such as civil rights and the Vietnam War, Glenn and the space program served as a unifying force. It wasn’t just a space race against the Russians, but a moment in time that showed the world the best America had to offer and everyone, in every state, seemed proud.

John Glenn began a 24 year career in public service when elected to the U. S. Senate in 1974. I had the opportunity to meet him a couple of times when I was a young lawyer fresh out of law school working in D.C. for the late Senator Howell Heflin. Glenn came through Birmingham while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President in 1984. He had a rally in Linn Park on a bright sunny day. It was almost like central casting had created the entire scene – a beautiful day with a crowd excited to be in the presence of true greatness. Unfortunately for Glenn, and perhaps the country, that was one accomplishment that didn’t go his way, and yet, he carried on and continued to serve. In 1998, just before his retirement from the Senate, at age 77, he volunteered to be the oldest person to venture into space by hitching a ride on the space shuttle Discovery, giving scientists real-time data of how space travel impacts the elderly. And once again he captured America’s imagination. When he blasted off I was hosting a law enforcement conference in Gulf Shores with my two Alabama US Attorney colleagues. As had happened some 37 years earlier, we stopped our work, we stopped our play, just to watch the liftoff! Simply amazing!

It goes without saying that Glenn, like all of the NASA astronauts, was a patriot and his constant desire to lead us towards great adventures represented the best of what America could be. And we were united in supporting those efforts because they demonstrated to the world that one of our own had the “right stuff” to dream big, make those dreams a reality, and then celebrate as one people. Today it seems we only unite in the wake of tragedy – 9/11, the Boston Marathon Bombings and so on – but Glenn and others brought our country together by demonstrating what’s possible when we work towards common goals, no matter how big or how small. And that which moves us forward as a nation has the potential to benefit all. More than ever, America needs such heroes so we may continue to dream and complete our missions, whatever they may be.

America needs more John Glenns.