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John Glenn was a true American hero

We lost one of the American great ones today – John Glenn. He was the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest man in space after going up in the Space Shuttle at age 77.  He was a Marine fighter pilot flying 149 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War and was known as “Old Magnet Ass” because his plane was shot so many times and he kept it flying. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross six times.

To be a hero you have to be willing to sacrifice your life in a way that will benefit others. Hero gets tossed around too much, people many times do the right thing but if they don’t put their life on the line, they ain’t a hero. I heard a dog called a hero this week because it bit someone attacking its owner.

But Glenn was a hero, many times over. And a good guy.

He was a Senator from Ohio when I lived there in the ’80s and ran for President in 1984. I worked for a small daily newspaper and even though our circulation area was 50 miles from where Glenn lived, it was such a big story that we covered his presidential announcement. We were an afternoon paper and the event was scheduled for late morning, which meant we had time to get a story in that day’s paper and an AP photo. I talked the editor into sending me and I promised I have a print ready by noon from a 10 a.m. event that was 90 minutes away.

These were the days of film and we didn’t have a transmitter, so the only way the get the picture in the paper was to develop the film during the 90 minute drive back to Marietta. I arranged to use the newspaper’s circulation van and got one of their people to be my driver. I set up a film darkroom in the back of the utility van, I had a changing bag to load my film into a developing tank, the proper chemicals and rinse. I was ready.

Of course the event didn’t start on time, which was a problem. There was a pretty good crowd of journalists and all the photographers were herded onto risers to Glenn’s right. Since this was his first big presidential event, the background was black with an American flag hanging about 10 feet over his head – too high to get in a normal picture. But I knew I needed the flag so I shot a few pictures from my assigned spot and then crawled down to the bottom of the risers and got on my belly and was shooting up to get the flag in the picture. I was getting some strange looks but I was getting the picture.

My picture was a strong vertical, which wasn’t the shape we talked about at the newspaper before I left. Since we had such a tight deadline, we had to design the front page without knowing what size or shape the lead photo would be and we guessed it would be horizontal. This was before cell phones, so I grabbed our reporter who had to find a phone to call in his story. I told him to let them know that I had a 4-column by 16″ photo and they needed to redesign the page before I got back.

I was in the van and souping film before the event was over. We were bouncing down the road and I was swishing chemicals around. I had plenty of time to wash the film and select a picture. The big problem was the film was still wet, I didn’t have any way to dry it. Wet film scratches really easy so I had to be extra careful as I was jostled around in the back of the van.

We hit the newspaper parking lot and I jumped out, ran into the darkroom with my wet film and made a print. Three editors came in to give me hell for changing our planned size but it was too late for them to argue with me. They had pulled a horizontal AP picture, which got there before I did, and produced one front page with it in case I didn’t get back in time. They also listened to me and created a page to fit my picture. I got lucky and hit it on the first print, ran it back to production, it fit the hole and we were on the press two minutes early.

And I didn’t see any other photos with the American flag. John Glenn deserved having an American flag.

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