At noon on Wednesday, March 25, an informal group of 13 first-year law students sat down for a working lunch of sorts in the Public Service Law Center.
Two professors, Marc Spindelman and Terri Enns, brought the students together after the students expressed interest in one day possibly working in politics and government.
For this, the group’s first meeting, the students, who fall on all sides of the political spectrum, were told only that there would be a special guest – a surprise – and to dress in business casual clothing. About five minutes before the special guest arrived – just enough time for the students to regain their composure, if necessary – they were told his name: Senator John Glenn.
That’s right: The 93-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps aviator, engineer, NASA astronaut (the first American to orbit the earth in 1959), and former U.S. Senator (from 1974 to 1999) was about to join them for an intimate lunch discussion about his life and career in public service.
As Glenn and his wife of nearly 72 years, Annie, walked into the room and took their seats at the long table, Professor Spindelman began to make his introductions. Spindelman called Glenn a national hero, and Glenn, who appeared still sharp as can be in his ninth decade, promptly cut him off. “Ah, that’s alright. ‘Here’s Johnny’ will work,” Glenn said, to roars of laughter.
After a caveat about his less-than perfect vision and hearing – unfortunate products of the aging process – Glenn, who grew up in New Concord, Ohio, and studied engineering at Muskingum College, proceeded to tell a condensed version of his life story, interspersed with nuggets of hard-won wisdom and advice for this future generation of lawyers and elected officials.
He recalled that a high school civics teacher named Harford Steele ignited his initial interest in politics. “He was a great teacher – he really made civics come alive. It was one of the few courses in high school I really looked forward to each week,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything that would be more satisfying than representing other people in some level of government and trying to make the country better.”
He put his political ambitions on hold to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean War, and then to pilot the NASA Mercury spacecraft, Friendship 7, on a test flight to orbit the planet. Glenn returned from space a household name – and, all modesty aside, a national hero – and then decided, he said, that “if I ever was going to be serious about going into politics, that was the time to do it.” After running for the U.S. Senate in 1970 (and facing defeat by his opponent, Howard Metzenbaum), he persisted and was elected to the Senate in 1974.
A life in politics, he noted, is far from easy. “You’ll be criticized for all sorts of things. You’ll have to raise money beyond belief to run these days,” he cautioned the students. “People will call on you for party loyalties beyond what you want, or major contributors will sometimes want you to vote a certain way that you don’t want to vote. I never did change my vote because of a campaign contribution, ever. And I’m proud of that. I tried to base my votes on what was best for the greatest number of people.”
He also recalled influential words of advice on the topic of leadership, which were delivered by American historian and writer Douglas Southall Freeman at a graduation ceremony for new platoon leaders during the Korean War. According to Freeman, Glenn said, three basic points of leadership could be applied to just about any profession, from the military to politics: Know your stuff; be the best and most honest man or women that you can be; and finally, the people you are leading must believe that your decisions are truly made in their best interests.
He lamented the partisan antics that dominate today’s political climate, and applauded the bipartisan group of students for coming together for civil discussion.
“As I understand it, some of you have a Republican bent and some of you have a Democratic bent, right?” he asked the group, who nodded in affirmation. “I’m glad to see you mixing up here, and I hope you keep talking to each other about things that are important to this country. God knows there’s hope for this country yet as long as there are people like you who are willing to sit and talk to each other and plan careers that may include being elected to public office, which is what we need.”
1L Melissa Wasser, a 1L from McDonald, Ohio, grinned widely as she talked about Glenn’s visit immediately after the fact.
“I had heard from fellow students that Senator Glenn and his wife are known to come around the law school on different occasions, and I was always excited by the possibility that they would,” she said, adding that, for her, the timing of his visit could not have been more perfect, given that a week ago she applied to the Glenn College of Public Affairs’ dual degree program with Moritz College of Law.
“He has a really great story and seems to be very passionate,” Wasser said of Glenn. “I really appreciated his advice on leadership… We only have three years here, and to hear Senator Glenn talk about how we can use our law degree to truly make a difference was very influential.”