WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2016 – Flags continue to fly at half-staff in Washington and at U.S. facilities around the world for John Glenn, who will be eulogized at a memorial service Saturday at Ohio State University.
Glenn, an American icon from his pioneering space flight, died Dec. 8 at age 95. But he also compiled a farmer-friendly record that was eclipsed by his other accomplishments in four Senate terms before he retired in 1998.
Given his interests derived from his time as a Marine Corps pilot and astronaut, he served on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. He was the chief author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and of legislation to strengthen sanctions against nuclear proliferation. He chaired the Committee on Governmental Affairs from 1987 until 1995, championing efforts to increase congressional oversight of federal regulations.
Along with the majority of congressional Democrats, Glenn opposed the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill, voted to kill a bill to repeal ethanol standards and lined up against legislation that would have relaxed federal grazing land restrictions.
In his bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984, when he lost to former Vice President Walter Mondale, he promised to improve domestic and export markets for farm products and enhance agricultural conservation. His campaign platform said:
“American farmers are the most productive on earth. But the Reagan Administration has mismanaged our farm policy at home and abroad. Farmers are unable to compete, unable to produce, and have been used as pawns of our foreign policy.
“John Glenn would work to stimulate demand for agricultural products at home and abroad, stabilize farm production and prices at levels that are fair to the farmers and the consumer, encourage soil and water conservation and preserve our most precious commodity: the farming way of life.”
But it was his experience in space that made the most indelible impression on his perspective of agriculture. Speaking at an Ohio Farmland Preservation Summit in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, in 2005, he said that his commitment to conservation took wings out in space.
“Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, also became the oldest person (77) to ever travel in space, when he returned to space in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery,” said a contemporary report in Ohio Farm & Dairy newspaper. “And it was during his travel through the vastness of space that Glenn recognized the finite well of Earth’s natural resources, including farmland.”
Glenn described looking back at the Earth, with its narrow, blue layer of atmosphere, and realized, “There’s a thin, little environment we live in.” He said that moment redefined his perceptions. “I don’t know of any astronaut who doesn’t come back and say ‘We’d better take care of this,’” Glenn said. “If we foul this up, there’s no coming back from that.”
After retiring from the Senate, he crossed party lines to campaign in Ohio for Republican Governor Bob Taft’s $400 million bond program, approved by voters in November 2000, to make funds available for conservation and brownfield revitalization projects, including farmland preservation.
Washington lawyer Mike McLeod handled agriculture policy for Glenn during his unsuccessful bid for the White House. “He will always be a hero to me,” McLeod said in an email, “as well as a perfect gentleman.”
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