Annie Glenn, American hero
In 2012, Annie Glenn and I were doing what we so often did, which was to sit side-by-side in a quiet place offstage, waiting for our extroverted husbands to finish speaking to a crowd.
We had been close friends for six years by then. My husband, Sherrod Brown, was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Annie’s husband — that’s how I always introduced him, to his delight — was former senator and astronaut John Glenn, who often joined Sherrod on the campaign trail.
At one point as we waited, Annie tilted her head at me and then laughed. “What?” she said. “Why are you staring at me?”
I held up my camera. “I’ve never shot a photo of just you, without John.”
To my surprise, she grinned and pumped her arms in the air. It is one of my favorite photos of her because it is the Annie Glenn I knew, the friend I loved. The public perception of her wasn’t wrong: She was kind and brave, in her quiet way, and ever gracious. But she was also whimsical and wise, and very funny.
People have all kinds of ideas of what it means to be a “political wife,” a term Annie and I agreed was shorthand for invisible. Once, early in our friendship, I vented to her after a frustrating exchange with a political consultant. “They only see us as a prop or a problem,” I told her, fighting tears.
She squeezed my hand and leaned in. “Then be a problem.” I was so surprised that I laughed out loud.
She became my mentor and trusted confidant. In a world that is quick to judge ambitious women, there was no dream I couldn’t share with Annie, nothing I could say that would shock her. She was nearly four decades older than I am, but in the ways that mattered most, she was never old.
Annie died this week of COVID-19. She was 100 years old, and some people with the best intentions have tried to comfort me by remarking on the extraordinary length and span of her life. She would have been the first to agree, and I’m in a darker place than she would have wanted. My generous friend didn’t deserve to die like this. In saying that, I know I’m echoing the grief of everyone who has lost a loved one to this, our season of loss.
In 2011, on John’s 90th birthday, The Plain Dealer asked me to write an essay about him. I included this about Annie:
“It would be wrong to commemorate the remarkable life of John Glenn without also celebrating this woman who has been his wife through all of it. They are virtually inseparable these days, and John is the first to acknowledge that Annie makes life worth living.
“Annie is as engaging as she is generous, full of opinions earned by living life at full throttle, even when she is scared to death. And this a crucial truth about Annie Glenn. Americans rightly “ooh” and “ahh” over John Glenn’s courage in space, but let us never forget the hero of a wife who gave her public blessing, and then privately prayed until his safe return.”
Every obituary I’ve read about Annie, including in The New York Times, is also about John, who died in December 2016. This is inevitable, and it would not have bothered her. I once asked Annie if she had ever tired of being the wife of the famous astronaut after John became the first American to circle the Earth, in 1962.
“That’s who he was,” she said, shaking her head. “And that’s who I was when America first met me.”
More than a decade later, America got to know a different Annie. In her 50s by then, she enrolled in intensive speech training at Hollins College to overcome her severe stutter. She became a champion for people with speech disorders, and a hero in her own right.
I knew from many conversations that Annie never forgot what it felt like to be judged, and often shunned, for her stuttering. As a country and a culture, we reward the extroverts, the self-promoters. The writer’s typical pivot here would be to bemoan how much we lose by ignoring the Annie Glenns of the world, but there was only one Annie Glenn.
Once, while sitting next to John at a public dinner, I told him I was inspired by his and Annie’s marriage. He turned to look into my eyes. “Oh, Connie,” he said, “I am who I am because of Annie.”
Anyone lucky enough to have been loved by Annie knows exactly what he meant.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.