Annie Glenn, who reluctantly entered the public eye as the wife of astronaut and senator John Glenn and later overcame a severe stuttering problem to become a leading advocate for people with communication disorders, died May 19 at a nursing center in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was 100.

The cause was COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said the senator’s former press secretary, Dale Butland.

Glenn met her future husband when they were toddlers, growing up in New Concord, Ohio. They went to high school and college together and were married in 1943, while John Glenn was serving as a Marine Corps pilot.

She later said they moved 33 times for her husband’s career as he flew hundreds of missions in World War II and the Korean War and later became a test pilot. He was selected as part of the country’s astronaut corps, the Mercury Seven, in 1959.

During the early years of the space program, the astronauts were seen as national heroes, and none more so than John Glenn.

He was not the first to go into space – that honor went to Alan Shepard in 1961. But perhaps more than the other astronauts, Glenn had a grasp of the historical and symbolic importance of the United States’ first voyages into space. He was also a squeaky-clean, churchgoing Midwesterner, a publicist’s dream.

He knew his wife and their two children were part of the astronauts’ larger story, whether they wanted to be or not. They appeared regularly in the pages of Life magazine, which had an exclusive contract to cover the private lives of the astronauts.

What was not widely known at the time was that Glenn suffered from a severe stuttering problem that made it difficult for her to speak in public, give interviews or even talk on the telephone – a device John Glenn called “an instrument of the devil to a stutterer.”

It was particularly difficult when Glenn accompanied her husband to meetings with top military and political officials, who seldom had the patience to wait for her to form her words.

“Lots of people thought when my jaws sort of started shaking,” as she tried to speak, Glenn told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2001, “that I was cold. Lots of people would turn their backs and walk away from me. I have been laughed at many times.”

After Shepard’s short flight in 1961, John Glenn was scheduled to become the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth. His launch was postponed several times, creating a steadily building sense of tension and expectation.


Former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn and his wife Annie Glenn on May 14, 2015. Paul Vernon/Associated Press file

At one of the postponed launches, Vice President Lyndon Johnson wanted to visit Glenn at her home in Arlington, Virginia. In a celebrated scene in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” and the 1983 movie of the same name, Johnson demanded to meet Glenn, with TV crews in tow.

NASA officials went so far as to call John Glenn, still wearing his spacesuit, after a scrapped mission at Cape Canaveral, telling him his wife was a problem.

“Look, if you don’t want the Vice-President or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house,” he told her, according to “The Right Stuff,” “then that’s it as far as I’m concerned, they are not coming in – and I will back you up all the way, one hundred percent, and you tell them that.”

Glenn later told The Washington Post that it wasn’t her stutter that made her unwilling to greet Johnson, but that she had a migraine.

When John Glenn’s mission finally launched on Feb. 20, 1962, Life reporter Loudon Wainwright noted that Glenn was watching the liftoff with her two children on three television sets.

“When the tears began to run down her daughter’s cheeks, Annie, without looking away from the triple view of the rising rocket, put one hand gently on her child’s foot.”

“Finally, then as the television camera poked aimlessly through an empty sky, Annie put her head against her knees and sobbed.”

She later said her husband’s flight – marked by a dangerous re-entry, in which he had to pilot the spacecraft by manual controls – left her “the most scared I’ve ever been.”

In 1973, Glenn entered an intensive three-week speech therapy program at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. At the end of the program, she called her husband at his office. It was the first time that she could speak in complete sentences. He was in tears.

A year later, with Glenn at his side, John Glenn was elected to the first of four terms as a Democratic senator from Ohio.

Anna Margaret Castor was born Feb. 17, 1920, in Columbus, Ohio, and moved three years later to New Concord. Her father was a dentist, her mother a homemaker.

She was one year older than John Glenn, who was a childhood playmate and her high school and college sweetheart.

“The very first time I realized I was not like all other kids was in the sixth grade,” Glenn said in a 2010 video made by Ohio State University. “I got up to give a poem, and one of the kids laughed. And I thought, ‘Oh, oh. I am not like anybody else in this room.’ ”

She graduated in 1942 from her hometown college, now called Muskingum University. An outstanding organist, she turned down a scholarship offer from the Juilliard School in New York.

While her husband was in the Senate, Glenn became a leading advocate for people with communication disorders. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association presents an annual award in her honor, dubbed the Annie, to someone who has an impact on people with speech or communication disorders. The first recipient, in 1987, was actor James Earl Jones. The award in 2009 was presented to Vice President Joe Biden.

Glenn campaigned for her husband during his short-lived presidential run in 1984. In 1998, when John Glenn was 77 and in his final year in the Senate, he returned to space as NASA’s oldest astronaut.

“I would pray every night, and I guess my prayers were answered because he made it,” Glenn said in 2010 of her husband’s career as a pilot and astronaut.

The couple later established a college of public affairs at Ohio State University, where Glenn was an adjunct professor of speech pathology. John Glenn died in 2016 at 95.

Survivors include two children, David Glenn of Berkeley, California, and Lyn Glenn of St. Paul; and two grandsons.

John Glenn was sometimes called America’s last great hero.

“America is made up of a whole nation of heroes who face problems that are very difficult, and their courage remains largely unsung,” he wrote in the book “My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them,” “but millions of individuals are heroes in their own right.

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