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Astronaut John Glenn trains at the Johnson Space Center, August 28, 1998 in Houston, Texas.
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Astronaut John Glenn trains at the Johnson Space Center, August 28, 1998 in Houston, Texas.
David Hume Kennerly—Getty Images

John Glenn was a true American hero—and a great life coach.

The world lost a selfless and inspiring leader when former Sen. Glenn passed away yesterday. Most Americans know the basics of his impressive life: He volunteered for the military after Pearl Harbor. He demonstrated incredible physical bravery and technical prowess flying fighter planes in World War II. Then, to become an astronaut he out-trained and out-performed younger men. He was the first American to orbit the Earth. Then he became a public servant—a senator. And at 77, he broke stereotypes about elders by returning to NASA and becoming the oldest person to go into space.

But what most people may not realize is how inspiring and wise Sen. Glenn was, even later in his life.

I had the honor of meeting and talking with him in 2007, when I spent six months on a graduate fellowship at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. He was in his mid-80s.

My first impression was wow! He was in impressive physical shape. He looked like he could out -run, out - pushup, and out-punch me or just about anybody 40 or 50 years his junior.

He was also a remarkably thoughtful and intellectually curious person. He was genuinely excited by the new media tools and projects that I and the other participants of the Kiplinger Fellowship Program were developing.

During our discussions, he told me something that changed my life, and might change yours. He told me that whenever he arrived at a crossroads in his life—when it was time to decide whether to, say, return to NASA or run for public office—he would sit down with his wife (who also impressed us with her insights and graciousness) and discuss: "What is the best use of me?"

That approach to his role in life—always looking for the best use of his particular abilities and talents—was a revelation to me. I've tried to keep that, and his example of courage, humility and decency, foremost in my mind as I proceed through the years.

Especially in these times of bitterness and pettiness, it's important to honor and remember those who, like Sen. Glenn, represented the best of America. He will be sorely missed.


This story was updated at 3:25 p.m. Dec. 9, 2016 to correct the type of aircraft John Glenn flew during World War II.