Annie Glenn, Champion of Those With Speech Disorders, Dies at 100
Being an astronaut’s wife thrust her into the spotlight, but a stutter left her struggling for words until she found help.Annie Glenn with her husband, the astronaut John Glenn, at Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1962. At the time, she had a severe stutter. “I could never get through a whole sentence,” she once said. “Sometimes I would open my mouth and nothing would come out.”Credit...Associated Press
By Neil Genzlinger
May 19, 2020
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 on 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.
Mrs. Glenn, too, was thrust into the national spotlight in 1962, when Mr. 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.
“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 (now Hollins University) 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 Dr. Webster’s intensive, three-week program. By the end of it, she said, she could do things that had been beyond her before, like go to a mall and comfortably ask a store 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 program’s 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’s department of speech and hearing science. In 1987, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association created an award in her honor, 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.”
“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, wrote in February in The Boston Globe on the occasion of Mrs. Glenn’s 100th birthday.
“She fought her condition, to be sure,” Mr. 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 Mr. Glenn’s family lived. She and her future husband were childhood playmates.
Mrs. 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 at that time,” she added.
She graduated from Muskingum College in 1942, majoring in music and education. She and Mr. Glenn married in 1943, the same year that he was commissioned in the Marine Corps.
As her husband became an American hero, Mrs. Glenn was seen but, necessarily, not often heard.
“Our children answered questions when the media would set up at our house,” she recalled in a 1998 interview with 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 both 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, recalling the reaction of friends and family members. 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 Mr. Glenn made an unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, Mrs. Glenn enjoyed being a visible part of his campaign.
“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.”
Mrs. Glenn served on the advisory boards of numerous child-abuse and speech and hearing organizations. Her husband died in 2016 at 95.
Mrs. Glenn is survived by two children, John David Glenn and Carolyn Ann Glenn, and two grandchildren.
In 1982, a reporter for The Globe asked Mr. 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.”