We sat in the back of the bus, more than a third of a century ago. There was PF Bentley, the gifted photographer for Time magazine. There was Annie Glenn, the wife of astronaut John H. Glenn, then a leading candidate for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. And there was me.
We sat there in a grueling week-long campaign tour of rural Alabama, and then through Iowa’s farm counties, and finally into the New Hampshire lakes-region town where the candidate encountered a set of twins born the month he was thrust into space. One of those 22-year-olds was named John, the other Glenn.
The three of us — PF, Annie, and me — shared a bond, beyond lack of sleep and the growing realization that while Americans were happy to have John Glenn as a national hero, even to name their children after him, they didn’t want him as president.
It was a bond we could not express with clarity. We were stutterers.
Feb. 17 is Annie Glenn’s 100th birthday. She lives in a retirement home in Minnesota, close to her daughter, Lyn, but without her husband, who died three years ago. The husband soared into space, the first American to orbit the earth, while the wife sat nervously on a couch, watching reports on a black-and-white television of the flight of Friendship 7 and its frightening re-entry but unable to express her worry, or her eventual relief.
But at her 100th birthday — at a time when another stutterer, former vice president Joe Biden, is reaching for the same prize her husband sought — Annie Glenn remains a hero to many of us who in various periods of our lives couldn’t get a word, a thought, or a sentiment past our lips. “When you think of what she had to go through as a public figure and how she represented the family,’’ said Trevor Brown, dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, ‘’you get a sense of her courage.’’
She fought her condition, to be sure, but she also fought for broad public understanding of stuttering, for the idea that stutterers weren’t merely shy, weren’t unintelligent, weren’t social pariahs. “Her stuttering taught her patience and tolerance,’’ her daughter said.
Annie Glenn’s work on behalf of fellow stutterers has transformed the world’s view of those whose words are trapped by an immovable tongue. Yet great progress remains to be made. Biden has been ridiculed in the campaign because some of his sentences, marred by stuttering, have made him seem tentative, lost in mid-thought, or displaying early signs of senility. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed a disabled jetliner in the Hudson River in 2009 and a stutterer, felt the need to upbraid Lara Trump after the president’s daughter-in-law taunted and mocked Biden at a Trump campaign event in Iowa, saying, “Joe can you get it out?’’
Here’s @LaraLeaTrump at Trump event in Iowa mocking Biden for stuttering: "I feel kind of sad for Biden ... I'm supposed to want him to fail at every turn, but every time they turn to him I'm like, 'Joe can you get it out? Let's get the words out Joe.’” pic.twitter.com/0inN9wXYJF— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 17, 2020
The indie pop singer Megan Washington, who performs simply as Washington, was born in Papua New Guinea and developed a stutter before she entered grade school. In a remarkable TED talk that examined her difficulty talking, she said:
“One would assume that I’m comfortable in the public sphere and comfortable here, speaking to you guys. But the truth is that I've spent my life up until this point, and including this point, living in mortal dread of public speaking. Public singing, whole different thing.’’
Most of my own stuttering — a source of great anxiety and humiliation in my childhood — dissipated after the speech pathologist at Swampscott High School took me aside 48 years ago and gave me a life-changing task. She presented me with a book of the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and told me to go to the beach and deliver those speeches — the New Deal, the Four Freedoms, the Date of Infamy — to the ocean.
Thus began a lifelong study of American presidents that drew me into political journalism — and a path away from stuttering. I don’t recall her name, but I have never forgotten her kindness, especially on the occasional days even now when I am quite literally tongue-tied.
“Our joke to John Glenn was that we had long talks,’’ Bentley recalled in a stutterer-to-stutterer conversation on the telephone, an instrument I once considered an implement of the devil, so traumatized was I by the ring of the phone. ‘’We didn’t say a lot but we had long talks.’’
At her 100th birthday it is fitting to acknowledge that in her quiet way Annie Glenn actually did say a lot. On Monday, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association presents an annual award called ‘’The Annie,’’ recognizing an individual who exemplifies “Mrs. Glenn’s own invincible spirit.’’ For those who receive it, as for the woman who inspired it, it is a lifetime achievement award. I say that without hesitation.
David Shribman, previously the Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the paper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that earned the Pulitzer Prize.