By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Fifty years ago, John H. Glenn Jr. soared into worldwide fame as the first American to orbit the Earth.
The Mahoning Valley was closely linked to that Feb. 20, 1962, event, and to the 1974 launch of Glenn’s 24-year career as a U.S. senator from Ohio.
After Glenn’s five-hour solo flight and Atlantic Ocean splashdown, Mahoning Valley native David D. Bell, a Navy boatswain’s mate, hoisted the Friendship 7 capsule with Glenn inside aboard the destroyer Noa and was the first to greet him.
“Nice going, Col. Glenn. Glad to have you back. I’m from Ohio, too,” Bell recalled telling Glenn.
“Thanks a million. Never was so glad to see anything in my life as this ship,” Glenn replied.
Bell recalled that conversation in a Vindicator interview just before Sen. Glenn’s return to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.
Born in Campbell and raised in Struthers, Bell returned to the Valley and resided in Youngstown from 1988 until his death in March 2009 at 82.
Friendship 7 is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washingon, D.C.
REMEMBERING THE FLIGHT
“There was a lot of nervous anxiety about where he was going and how this was going to end and whether it would end in a tragedy,” recalled Youngstown Atty. Paul Dutton, who watched the 1962 flight on TV at Cardinal Mooney High School, where he was then a sophomore.
“It was chilling. ... No American ever did that before,” recalled Tom Humphries, president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, who watched the historic flight on TV at The Rayen School, where he was a senior.
“I remember sitting on the edge of the seat watching it,” Humphries said.
The anxiety surrounding Glenn’s flight was heightened by a warning signal showing the space capsule’s heat shield, which would protect Glenn during his
fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, might not be properly secured.
In the hope of securing that critical shield, flight director Chris Kraft decided to keep the normally discharged retro-rocket assembly in place during re-entry, causing Glenn to exclaim, “That’s a real fireball outside!” as burning retro-rocket fragments flew by him during re-entry.
Parents pried their children from TV sets, as all three networks featured live early-morning countdown coverage, and sent them to school, where the children continued to see and hear the coverage of the often-postponed three-orbit flight, which was launched at 9:47 a.m.
With Mahoning Valley residents glued to their radios and TVs, calls to
normally busy local telephone switchboards slowed to a trickle, and a crowd gathered inside and outside a West Boardman Street jewelry shop to hear live radio coverage of the flight, The Vindicator reported.
The flight was a major milestone in the space race with the Soviet Union, in which then-President John F. Kennedy had committed the United States to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
That promise was fulfilled in July 1969, when Ohioan Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. walked on the moon.
“It was a rallying point for the whole country,” Humphries said of the space program and Glenn’s pioneering flight.
“It was a morale booster for the country,” he added.
“It inspired me to inspire the students,” said George D. Beelen, a retired Youngstown State University history professor, who listened to radio coverage of the flight at Poland Seminary High School, where he then taught history.
“That was, I think, an exhilarating time in that John Kennedy was just elected in 1960 ... and then on the heels of that, the president challenging us to go to the moon in 10 years. And then, with John Glenn’s orbital flight, that was kind of a heady, exciting time,” recalled Beelen, of Canfield, who is also a former
In conjunction with the space race, schools intensified their math and science curricula, Dutton recalled.
“We took great pride in the fact that John Glenn was from Ohio and was one of us in this endeavor,” Dutton said of Glenn, now 90, of New Concord.
Dutton and Beelen became co-chairmen of the Mahoning County campaign in Glenn’s first successful U.S. Senate race in 1974.
“From that flight, many of us felt that, here was a true, courageous human being,” Beelen said.
“John Glenn seemed to be the all-American, clean-cut, good human being,” Dutton recalled. “We were idealistic. We believed in him,” he said, adding that Glenn was a hero, both as a World War II and Korean War combat pilot and as an astronaut.
After Glenn’s primary victory, the roles of Beelen and Dutton expanded to running Glenn’s general election campaign in most of northeast Ohio.
Dutton and Beelen delivered 77.9 percent of Mahoning County’s general election vote for Glenn — the greatest majority for Glenn in all 88 Ohio counties, Dutton said, adding that Glenn acknowledged this in a handwritten congratulatory letter.
GLENN’S SENATE CAREER
As a U.S. senator, Glenn was always accessible to his constituents, Dutton said.
Glenn was an influential supporter of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy — a $100 million federally funded effort to help the Mahoning Valley recover from the closing of its major steel mills between 1977 and 1980 and to preserve the remainder of its manufacturing base.
“He took the lead in preserving and really enlarging the Air Force reserve base in Vienna,” Dutton said of Glenn.
“He was really for labor values and the values of the Valley,” Beelen said, referring to the senator’s support for organized labor.
Dutton was the Northeast Ohio coordinator for Glenn’s unsuccessful 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In that effort, Dutton helped coordinate a campaign fundraiser at Mr. Anthony’s that drew 1,200 attendees and raised more than $250,000, he recalled.
As a senator, Glenn would generate spontaneous applause from crowds assembled to hear him speak as soon as he appeared in the doorway and long before his presence was announced into a microphone.
The senator was effective in communicating one-to-one with his constituents and in speaking to groups of 100 to 200 people, Dutton said.
However, Glenn’s presidential ambitions fell victim to television-driven national electoral politics, Dutton observed.
“His forté wasn’t giving a speech on television, and I think he was a victim of the electronic media,” Dutton explained.
“When you were looking for sound bites or short sentences with quotable quotes, that wasn’t his strong suit,” Dutton added.
“John Glenn was not a great speaker,” Beelen acknowledged. However, he added: “When you met him and you talked to him personally, you were just overwhelmed with the decency of the man,” and with his intelligence.
When Dutton was chairman of the Ohio Board of Regents, he strongly supported the creation and funding of Ohio State University’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs in 1998. The Board of Regents provided the startup money, which Ohio State matched, Dutton recalled.
Glenn said in a recent Columbus Dispatch interview from his office at the school that he hopes the school bearing his name will inspire students to pursue public service and political activism.