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Speech advocate Annie Glenn, astronaut’s wife, dies at 100

NEW YORK — Annie Glenn, who in a high-profile life as the wife of John Glenn, the astronaut and senator, became an inspiration to many who, like her, stuttered severely, advocating on behalf of people with communication disorders of all kinds, died Tuesday at a nursing home near St. Paul, Minn. She was 100.

Hank Wilson, director of communications at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University, said the cause was complications of the COVID-19 virus.

Annie Glenn, too, was thrust into the national spotlight in 1962, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. At the time, though, speaking or even using the telephone was an agony for her because of her stutter.

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“I could never get through a whole sentence,” she told The New York Times in 1980. “Sometimes I would open my mouth and nothing would come out.”

But in 1973, in her 50s, she decided to address her stuttering by participating in a fluency-shaping program developed by Dr. Ronald Webster at Hollins College in Virginia.

“I cannot make telephone calls, so John called and enrolled me,” she told The Boston Globe in 1975. “The first requirement was to do a taped interview. That established the fact that I’m an 85 percent stutterer, which is in the ‘most severe’ range.”

She immersed herself in Webster’s intensive, three-week program. By the end, she said, she could do things that had been beyond her, like go to a mall and comfortably ask a clerk where to find something.

“Those three weeks, we weren’t allowed at all to see our family, or to call, or anything,” she said.

“When I called John” at the end, she added, “he cried.”

She became a champion for people with speech disorders and an adjunct professor in the speech pathology department at Ohio State University. In 1987, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association created an award, known as the Annie, presented annually to someone who demonstrates, as the organization puts it, her “invincible spirit in building awareness on behalf of those with communication disorders.”

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“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,” David M. Shribman, executive editor emeritus of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and former Boston Globe Washington bureau chief, wrote in February in the Globe on the occasion of Glenn’s 100th birthday.

“She fought her condition, to be sure,” Shribman, a stutterer himself, wrote, “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.”

Anna Margaret Castor was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 17, 1920, to Homer and Margaret Castor. When she was 3 the family moved to New Concord, Ohio, about 70 miles east of Columbus, where John Glenn’s family lived. The two were childhood playmates.

Annie Glenn said she first became self-conscious about her stuttering in the sixth grade, when she stood in front of her class to recite. “I got up to give a poem, and one of the kids laughed,” she said in a video interview posted on the John Glenn College website. “And I thought, ‘Uh-oh; I am not like anybody else in this room.’”

“I think I was the only stutterer in town,” she added.

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She graduated from Muskingum College, majoring in music and education. She and John Glenn married in 1943, the same year that he was commissioned in the Marine Corps.

As her husband became an American hero, Annie Glenn was seen but, necessarily, not often heard.

“Our children answered questions when the media would set up at our house,” she told The Austin American-Statesman. “I didn’t want to be interviewed because of my stuttering.”

A stutter, she would often explain in later years, affected aspects of life large and small.

“I could never tell jokes like everybody else,” she told the Times in 1980. “John had to order my meals at restaurants. When I asked for something at a supermarket, clerks would snicker at me.”

The program at Hollins changed all that.

“People just couldn’t believe that I could really talk like I am talking now,” she said in the videotape. She went back for a refresher course in 1979 and shortly after made a half-hour speech in front of 300 women in Canton, Ohio.

“Our family has shared many first experiences,” she said toward the end of the speech, “but I share with all of you here today another first that means more than I can begin to tell you. This is the first full-length speech I have ever given in my whole life.”

She campaigned for her husband throughout his political career, beginning with his first race for the Senate in 1974. He served 24 years representing Ohio. When Glenn made an unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, Annie Glenn enjoyed being a visible part of his campaign.

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“Now I can talk with people, and it is something I have never been able to do before,” she told the Times on the campaign trail in December 1983. “It is like a bird being let out of a cage.”

Annie Glenn served on the advisory boards of numerous child-abuse and speech and hearing organizations. Her husband died in 2016 at 95.

Mrs. Glenn leaves two children, John David and Carolyn Ann, and two grandchildren.

In 1982, a Globe reporter asked John Glenn, who was then considering a presidential run, whether marrying someone with such a severe stutter had given him pause.

“That never really made any difference,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe it was just that we grew up together with it, and I knew the person she was and loved the person she was, and that was that.”