By Annie Glenn
October 13, 1980 12:00 PM

Of the two million Americans who stutter, few have lived with that humiliating handicap under circumstances as trying as Annie Glenn’s. Since her marriage 37 years ago to childhood sweetheart John Glenn, she found herself sharing a limelight she often wished she could avoid—in 1962, when her husband became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth, and again when he entered politics as a U.S. senator from Ohio. Though her lifelong speech impediment sometimes left her terrified (and silent) in public, Annie gamely appeared on TV, greeted Presidents and constituents, and supervised rearing the couple’s two children (David, now 34, and daughter Lyn, 33, neither of whom is a stutterer). Annie Glenn became an expert at being seen and not heard.

Seven years ago, at age 53, Annie entered the Communications Research Institute at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., for three weeks of intensive, specialized therapy. For the first time in her life she overcame her stuttering. (The course cost $925 plus expenses and is taught at SO centers across the country.) Now busily involved with her husband’s reelection, Annie described to PEOPLE Reporter Margie Bonnett her half century of struggle and its happy ending.

I was considered to have an 85 percent speech impediment, which means I stuttered that much of the time. My father, a dentist, also stuttered, but he made speeches, appeared in plays and was very active in our community of New Concord, Ohio. We never discussed his stuttering, and so to me it seemed like a way of life. Only once can I remember being laughed at as a child because of my speech. I was reciting a poem in sixth grade; I was really crushed, but I didn’t tell my parents about it. After that I was never made to get up in front of the class.

I was quite active in high school and college, won lots of awards and was accepted even though I had this problem. Growing up in a small town made it quite a bit easier, perhaps. My real difficulties came after I grew up and left home.

I can remember some very painful experiences—especially the ridicule. People would tell me to hurry up or start shouting at me because they thought I was deaf and dumb. Going into a department store used to be terrifying. I would never ask where certain items were because I was afraid of being laughed at. Instead, I would hunt and hunt. When I wanted to travel, I couldn’t tell the man at the ticket counter where I wanted to go. I had to write out my destination and show it to him. John was always very thoughtful and patient. When he and I ate in restaurants, he would order for me, or I’d point to what I wanted. But he never made the slightest attempt to keep me in the background.

Can you imagine living in the modern world and being afraid to use the telephone? “Hello” used to be so hard for me to say. I worried that my children would be injured and need a doctor. Could I somehow find the words to get the information across on the phone?

Yet I never let stuttering stop me from doing the things I enjoyed. As a Marine Corps fighter pilot’s wife and later, I moved our family 29 times, and in each place I would find a job at a nearby church playing the organ so I could meet new people. When my children were young, I was always in the PTA, and I was a Girl Scout leader for five years.

All the same, the years John was in the space program were tough. I don’t think any of us was fully prepared for the press attention and the commotion that followed his orbital flight. I can remember when the seven Mercury astronauts’ wives were asked to be on a Bob Hope special, and each of us was given something to say. I told them at the first rehearsal that I just wouldn’t be able to speak. They handled it very well, but after it was all over I had a disappointed feeling because I hadn’t tried.

By then I had taken three traditional speech therapy courses, but they had been more helpful for my morale than my stutter. Then one morning John and I were having breakfast and watching television, and I saw an interview with Ron Webster, director of the Hollins Communications Research Institute, about a new treatment for stuttering. John asked me if I’d like to try it. I said yes—and became one of the institute’s first 100 students.

During the three-week course we worked 11 hours a day. Some doctors now believe that stuttering has physical rather than emotional causes. Dr. Webster thinks it involves a defect in a person’s voice feedback. It appears as if some mechanism in the ears of the stutterer cancels out some of the information in the sound of the voice. When it doesn’t get to the brain, the speech muscles jump out of control. At the institute we began by pronouncing one-syllable words like “my” and “on” very slowly, two seconds per syllable, observing how it was formed in our throat, mouth and jaw. We also learned how to breathe; most stutterers take very shallow breaths from their chest, then get tense in their throat or jaw. The second week we sped up to one second per syllable, and by the third we were speaking at a normal rate and even making telephone calls. The last three days we went to shopping centers and practiced in public what we had learned.

After the success of this therapy, I began wondering last year how I could help some of my fellow stutterers. I decided to start with a speech to 300 women in Canton, Ohio. Since I had never been able to make long sentences, I prepared for three months and endured some sleepless nights.

In the speech I told my life story and spoke of the humiliations and fears I’d encountered because of my stuttering. At the end I said that “my family has shared many first experiences, but I share with all of you here today another first that means more than I can begin to tell you. This is the first full-length speech I’ve ever given.”

As I finished, many women in the audience were crying. I was deeply moved. Afterward I was exhausted and spent two days recuperating. A new world has opened up for me. Now I give talks for John, meet his constituents and I’m even joining a speakers’ club with other Senate wives. I can argue; I can say lengthy things I’ve never been able to say. I walk up to perfect strangers in the Capitol building and ask if I can help when they look lost. That’s something I’ve never been able to do before.

I still think I’ve got a long way to go. But now when people are rude or impatient when I’m out in public, I say, “Wait a minute, I’m a stutterer. Just be patient.” It takes a long time to gain the confidence to say that. I keep working with a speech therapist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and I have been back to Hollins twice—once in 1978 and again this past spring—because they had new research that could help me. I always emphasize that this particular speech therapy works for me, but it may not work for everyone. The most important part of what’s happened is that now I can get my ideas across. I used to be just a good listener; now I’m a chatterbox. John kids me that the phone bills have gone sky-high. My greatest pride is when I am able to encourage other stutterers to come out of hiding and tackle their problem. I have always had love and been happy. Now I want to help others feel that way too.