Remembering Sen. Glenn: Ordinary Americans do extraordinary things

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There are moments in a life that are much bigger than we are, and have a way of astounding us in memories as years pass by.

It was a bitterly cold winter day in early 1986 when I boarded a plane with a group of good people, all involved in agriculture, for a symposium in Washington, D.C.

There we would be meeting with our representatives as part of a well-planned Ohio Farm Bureau event, which I would be reporting on for the newspaper that employed me as editor.

It was an opportunity I looked forward to for many reasons. These were incredibly trying times for farmers. We had personally witnessed successful farmers suffering and struggling in ways we never thought we would.

The U.S. Prime rate in 1985 was around 10.5 percent, down from the horrific all-time high of 15 percent, and though we were promised better times ahead, some had seen their grasp on long-held family farms slip away.

Reserved seat

I learned upon our arrival I had been selected to attend dinner at the National Press Club, after a day of speakers and an official tour. I dressed for a semi-formal event, was escorted to the legendary Press Club dining area.

As I was shown to my reserved seat at a linen-draped round table, I saw my name plate situated beside none other than Senator John Glenn.

My heart skipped a few beats as I considered the enormity of this. My memory holds the sweet-natured gentleman’s kindness, his distinct voice, his interest in his constituents’ struggles.

A shyness in his demeanor as he asked specific questions regarding Ohio’s family farms is what remains strongest in my memory. His concern and interest was genuine.

I later learned that he was a last-minute addition to the dinner, asking to be a part of it to meet Ohio constituents who understood the dire straights of farmers.

Positive impression

Regardless of his hero status as the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, his 59 flight missions in the South Pacific during World War II, and among the first to pilot supersonic trans-continental flight, the man who sat beside me was a soft-spoken Ohio man who cared deeply for his country.

After asking about my family and the type of farming my father was involved in, he spoke of his own, who had spent his life running a plumbing business in New Concord, Ohio, and mentioned that his mother had retired as a school teacher.

“I think I made them proud, or at least I hope I did,” he said with a grin. Those are the only words I was able to commit completely to memory, and it says a lot about the impression he left.

His interest in his fellow man was born in a modest childhood. In his memoir, Glenn wrote that his family was able to keep their home during the Great Depression by the mercy of a government-backed FHA loan which allowed his father to renegotiate with the bank.

In the memorial service for Senator Glenn last week at Ohio State University, Vice President Joe Biden said it so well in his remarks, “I think John defined what it meant to be an American…the thing that I liked most about John was he knew from his upbringing that ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things.

“If we’re looking for a message to send about our time on Earth and what it means to be an American, it’s the life of John Glenn, and that is not hyperbole.”

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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