NEW CONCORD, Ohio – Don Thomas remembers looking out the window of his first-grade classroom at Independence Primary School in February 1962, hoping to catch a glimpse of John Glenn orbiting the earth.
“I remember the whole morning I wasn’t looking at the teacher, I was looking out the window,” said Thomas, now 66.
He didn’t realize at the time that the orbit of Friendship 7 was nowhere near northern Ohio, nor could it be seen during the day.
The mission, nevertheless, made quite an impression on a young Thomas, who remembers hearing Glenn talk about seeing the sunrise from space. “I was hooked,” said Thomas, now a retired NASA astronaut who lives in Maryland. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ “
Thomas gets the chance to repay the favor to the late Glenn, who is being feted this month in his hometowns of Cambridge and New Concord, about two hours south of Cleveland.
The occasion: What would have been Glenn’s 100th birthday on July 18, 1921.
Glenn – veteran, pilot, astronaut, senator, public servant – died in 2016, but his memory lives on in the region that he called home during his first decades.
Thomas will serve as grand marshal for the Friendship 7-Mile Parade, the centerpiece of a three-day event, running July 16-18, to honor and celebrate the lives of John and Annie Glenn, his long-time spouse who passed away last year.
Other events include speakers, book signings, pop-bottle rocket launches and other children’s activities, concerts, films, biplane rides and more.
“The whole weekend is geared toward family fun,” said Debbie Robinson, executive director of the Cambridge/Guernsey County Visitors and Convention Bureau.
The July 17 parade will run along U.S. 40 (the National Road) between Cambridge and New Concord and should hearken back to 1962, when thousands gathered in the streets to welcome Glenn home after his space flight.
“It was quite an exciting time,” she said. “We hope to recreate some of that.”
Born in Cambridge, Glenn’s family moved to nearby New Concord when he was a toddler. He and his future wife, the former Annie Castor, met while they were children. They both attended New Concord’s Muskingum College (now university).
Glenn’s childhood home in New Concord was turned into a museum in 2002, and will be open to the public during the weekend celebration.
Also available: The newly developed John and Annie Glenn Heritage Trail, a do-in-yourself tour of 30-plus sites across the region, including Glenn’s father’s plumbing business, currently a floral shop; John Glenn High School, built in 1962; the church where the Glenns were married in 1943; and many others.
And when you get hungry, check out the John Glenn Food Trail, featuring specialty items at restaurants through the region, including the Orbiter at Wally’s Pizza in New Concord, Moon Pie at Kennedy’s Baker in Cambridge and an Astro Burger at Rake’s Place in Zanesville, plus numerous others.
Thomas, a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School and Case Western Reserve University, met Glenn in 1995, as Thomas was preparing for his second of four space shuttle flights. Four out of five of the crew on that shuttle were Ohioans – so the crew asked then-Gov. George Voinovich to declare New Yorker Kevin Kregel an honorary Ohioan.
Glenn, whom Thomas had invited to Houston visit with the crew, had a better idea.
Recalled Thomas: “My commander, Tom Henricks, from Toledo, invited John Glenn into the commander seat and was talking with him about how to land the shuttle. John Glenn turned around – he had this smile on his face – and said, ‘If we knock off this New Yorker, we could make this the real Ohio shuttle.’ “
Thomas, the author of “Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission,” speculates that it was that visit to Houston in 1995 that gave Glenn the idea to travel into space again. Three years later, at age 77, Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery for nine days.
Robinson expects that the centennial gathering will prompt additional anecdotes about John and Annie Glenn, who came back frequently to their hometowns. “We’re looking forward to a weekend of wonderful stories,” she said.
Thomas, who makes it back to Cleveland regularly to see friends and family and enjoy his favorite pizza from Frankie’s in North Olmsted, is scheduled to give several talks during the weekend event, including a presentation Friday night in Cambridge and a talk Saturday afternoon in New Concord.
Other speakers include U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, journalist Connie Schultz, Muskingum University President Sue Hasseler, Trevor Brown, dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, and others. For a complete lineup: visitguernseycounty.com
For overnight packages and more information: visitguernseycounty.com, visitzanesville.com