"The Right Stuff" had it all wrong, says Annie Glenn.
The way the 1983 movie portrayed a famous 1962 showdown between Lyndon Baines Johnson and Annie — an astronaut's shy wife — might have been dramatic. However, that's not how it happened, Annie insists. She didn't want the vice president of the United States in her living room, but it wasn't because of her stutter.
"I had a migraine," said Annie, who lost more than 12 pounds during the nearly monthlong wait for the launch of Friendship 7, her husband's space flight.
The conquest of her stutter has made her a champion to those struggling with speech disabilities. Along with her husband, John, the former astronaut and retired U.S. senator from Ohio, she will receive the Great Communicator award Friday from the Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center.
Though it wasn't widely known in the 1960s, Annie often could not finish a sentence, grinding away at consonants, starting over, substituting a less troublesome word..
But it wasn't her stuttering that made the usually sweet, smiling Annie mad enough to stand up to the second most powerful man in America. It was the tension headache that had kept her up for several nights, plus the fact that Johnson wanted to kick Loudon Wainwright Jr., the Life magazine journalist whom Annie had befriended, out of her Arlington, Va., home.
LBJ's demand wasn't A-OK with Annie. The White House had given Life exclusive rights to cover the astronauts' home lives. Johnson wanted to bring in his handpicked reporters to document his comforting of John Glenn's wife.
"She told Loudon, `You sit right there,' " said her friend Rene Carpenter, who was once married to Scott Carpenter, the astronaut who followed John Glenn into the heavens three months later.
Annie said Loudon would stay, and her husband backed her 100 percent from a launch-pad telephone. LBJ played by Annie's rules that day.
To hear 81-year-old Annie talk today — smoothly and elegantly — you might never know that she had difficulty speaking. Annie used to stumble over 85 percent of her words until she underwent successful speech therapy at age 53.
Without bitterness, she told of those frustrating days of writing notes to department-store clerks; of wandering grocery aisles, only to leave without an item because she didn't want to ask for it; of not being able to telephone the beauty parlor for an appointment. During an hour-and-a-half phone conversation, slight hesitations in her speech, the last remnants of her impediment, went almost unnoticed. They blended naturally with her central Ohio accent, as laid-back as a small town.
Annie and John's daughter, Lyn Glenn, recalled that from the time she could talk on the phone, she fielded calls for her mother and made the family's doctor appointments.
"It's only in hindsight that I see the strength my mother had. Her tenacity shines," Lyn said.
Annie had tried many therapies throughout her life, but in 1973 she found the one that worked for her.
During a three-week course at Hollins Communication Research Institute in Roanoke, Va., where she spent 11 hours a day speaking very slowly to retrain speech habits, Annie had a phone conversation with her husband. For the first time, John heard her use complete sentences. To him it was a miracle. "I could hardly talk on the phone," he said. She later returned to Hollins for a refresher course.
Annie lectures to The Ohio State University master's degree students in speech pathology as an adjunct professor, and occasionally speaks publicly. An annual award is given in her name by the Rockville, Md.-based National Council on Communicative Disorders to those who have overcome handicaps.
Don't make the mistake of thinking of Annie Glenn as helpless, even during the days when she struggled with her speech, cautioned Dale Butland, former chief of staff for Sen. Glenn. "She's a wonderfully natural politician — some used to say that she was the best politician in the family — she is so naturally empathetic. But underneath all that sweetness is a resolve and grittiness that is unbelievable."
Mary Regula, founder and director of the National First Ladies' Library, on whose board Annie serves, was present the day Annie got up the nerve to give her first full-length speech at a women's luncheon in Canton, Ohio, in 1978.
"We knew it was her maiden speech. We were sending up silent prayers for her, and she did beautifully," said Regula. At the end, the 300 women at the luncheon, many of them in tears, gave her a standing ovation.
"John is a star, a real star," said Rene Carpenter. "He's a great guy and I love him, but Annie is the powerhouse within the marriage."
John, the first American to orbit Earth, recently spoke with pride about how Annie has triumphed over her stuttering. Annie has guts, said John, "more than anyone I've ever known."