Hollywood couldn't have invented a better all-American hero than John Glenn.
Born and reared in a small town in Ohio, he embodied the values of the Midwest -- hard work, a straightforward approach to whatever he confronted in his long lifetime and, above all, an irreproachable sense of integrity. He married his hometown sweetheart and remained devoted to her for more than 70 years. And he loved and served his country, answering its call to service in the military, risking his life as a pioneer in space and, finally, spending nearly a quarter-century representing Ohio in the United States Senate.
John Glenn, who died Thursday at the age of 95, didn't believe he was extraordinary -- but that, too, was Midwestern modesty. He was more than a celebrity, he was the hero the nation needed in the midst of the Cold War, a man who was the embodiment of courage, patriotism and old-fashioned decency. A rarity in today's world.
Born six years before Charles Lindbergh's heroic solo flight across the Atlantic, his long life spanned an incredible era in the nation's history. He earned a permanent place in it on Feb. 20, 1962, when his five-hour flight aboard Friendship 7 made him the first American to orbit the earth. And, 36 years later, as he was preparing to leave the Senate, he made history again as a crew member aboard the space shuttle -- becoming, at 77, the oldest individual to explore space.
Along with the other Mercury 7 astronauts -- he was the last survivor of the crew that became the first Americans in space -- he braved the unknown as a pioneer in space, risking death when the heat shield of his space capsule loosened during re-entry. Had it come loose, he would have been incinerated as temperatures reached 3,000 degrees. "I knew that if that was really happening, it would all be over shortly, and there was nothing I could do about it," he later wrote.
He downplayed his role in history, but of course was keenly aware of it. He was feted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City, forged lasting friendships with the Kennedy family and other celebrities, honored with schools named for him, yet somehow maintained his humility. During his initial foray into politics in 1970 he found audiences more interested in getting autographs than in listening to his views on campaign issues.
Chastened by defeat in the Democratic primary in 1970, he redoubled his efforts to win a Senate seat four years later and carried every one of Ohio's 88 counties. He went on to serve four terms in the Senate -- longer than any other Ohioan -- and took pride in representing the Buckeye State. A Democrat, he was a liberal moderate but not an ideologue. Like George Voinovich, who succeeded him in the Senate and died earlier this year, he was a man of principle whose judgment was respected by colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. He eschewed divisiveness and demagoguery.
While he was a political powerhouse in Ohio, he failed in his bid for the White House in 1984, in part because -- despite his celebrity -- he was found to be lacking in charisma. He ended the race saddled with a campaign debt that he felt personally obligated to retire.
He stepped down from the Senate 18 years ago, shortly after his final journey into space, but remained active for the rest of his long life. He maintained his humility even as the passing of time strengthened his reputation as an American icon.
"I was fortunate enough to have several opportunities to serve this country, and I am proud of that," he observed earlier this year. "But how will I be remembered? I'll leave that to other people."
The outpouring of emotion at his passing leaves no doubt about that. Godspeed, John Glenn. Rest in peace.