By Michael D. Slater, D.O.
The first time I met John Glenn turned out to be perfectly representative of who the man was and will always be to me. I’d been hired to work on his Aging Committee staff after a stint with the CIA and some fruitless work in the House. It was in his office, replete with space flight memorabilia and with his wife, Annie, ubiquitously present.
I had only a few minutes as the rush of staff and visitors, with seemingly much more important things to discuss, moved in and out like a frenzied line of customers with numbers at a bakery.
The introduction was perfunctory and I briefly relayed my history, including the fact that I was dumped from the agency after a rough (and what now would be illegal) polygraph interrogation of my life and sexual orientation.
After I finished, the boss – as I would come to call him for 14 more years – looked up over his glasses and simply said, “Well, we’re happy to have you aboard.” And in that brief but very subtle moment, he gave me my footing back, not just in D.C., but in my life.
Glenn was so many more things to so many people around the world. To me, he was the consummate gentleman, an Everyman who knew his role and task even as worldwide fame never left him.
He liked telling us the story of a New Guinea chief who, when Glenn visited on a trip after his historic space flight, presented him with a necklace and the story of how all of his village came out on a pitch black February night in 1962 to watch the light of Friendship 7 flying overhead.
There was nowhere in the world Glenn could go without being recognized. It happened numerous times when I was in his presence on trips or even just walking around the Capitol – this rare and amazing feeling that somehow one was walking with a living piece of history.
But he was as hard a worker on the Hill as I’d ever known, too. He went after crooked contractors of the Department of Energy like an obsessed prosecutor and didn’t flinch when the story exploded into international headlines over the previously secret failures of the cleanup at nuclear weapons sites around the country.
When few others felt it important, Glenn pursued making the Environmental Protection Agency a Cabinet-level department. It was the thorniest and most controversial thing I ever staffed him on. But he carried the day, with his bill passing the Senate (only to die later in the House).
He championed some unlikely causes, too, like homelessness and housing.
Among his loftiest accomplishments, please count among them hundreds of millions of dollars in programs for those poorest amongst us. This was his common touch, the thing that never left him from his boyhood in Ohio on through the greatest celebrity a human can achieve.
I recall flying home from field hearings in Dayton one winter night in a terrible rush. That may have been the most scared I have been on a flight or landing at National Airport. But Glenn, as I guess one would expect, sat through the awful turbulence completely unperturbed.
As we deplaned I said to him, “that was a rough one.” He winked back and said, “not too bad.”
Now in his final departure, I say back with the same ironic understatement, and gratitude, not too bad, John Glenn. Not too bad at all.