Legendary Northwest climber Jim Whittaker remembers his old friend John Glenn, who died this week, and in particular a lighthearted toast delivered by the astronaut at a Washington, D.C., dinner party. “We became really good friends,” Whittaker says.
Glenn and Whitaker are among the individuals who in the early 1960s literally showed this country the heights it could reach. They were the perfect heroes, with easy smiles, low key.
No hype needed when on Feb. 20, 1962, you become the first American to orbit the Earth, or on May 1, 1963, you become the first American to climb to the top of Mount Everest.
Whittaker, 87, lives in Port Townsend with his wife, Dianne Roberts, and is very much still active.
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He still remembers the toast that Glenn, who died Thursday at age 95, gave about Whittaker back in those heady days in the ’60s.
They both had become part of the circle around Bobby Kennedy, who loved the outdoors and loved to take those around him on climbing, skiing and rafting adventures. Those around him included other big names from that era — singer Andy Williams, humorist Art Buchwald, writer George Plimpton.
In his book, “A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond,” Whittaker remembers a dinner party in Washington, D.C.:
“I have to admit it was a hell of a lot of fun hobnobbing with folks like these, not to mention good for the ego of a scrawny kid from West Seattle.
“I remember one particular shining moment when John Glenn … stood up and proposed a toast: ‘To Jim Whittaker,’ he said, ‘the first American to summit Everest. And a chimpanzee didn’t do it before him!’ ”
Whittaker says, “I was embarrassed and thrilled. We became really good friends.”
The two men would question each other about what it was really like on their historic trips. As always, self-effacing.
Whittaker remembers Glenn talking about “seeing little snowflakes outside his window” on the space capsule.
“It was his urine,” says Whittaker.
On Whittaker’s website you can see photos from those days.
There is Bobby Kennedy, Glenn, Whittaker and renowned ski coach Willy Schaeffler on a 1967 river trip.
There is the same group skiing in 1966 in Sun Valley, with the addition of Ted Kennedy.
There are Glenn and Whittaker among the pallbearers carrying Bobby Kennedy’s casket in 1968 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
They then rode with the family and the casket on the train to Arlington National Cemetery.
“It was a slow train ride. People were all alongside the tracks to say goodbye to Bobby,” says Whittaker.
In 1984, when Glenn ran for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, Whittaker was the King County chairman for the campaign.
A Nov. 13, 1983, New York Times story described what it was like for Glenn on the campaign trail:
“In small towns, round-bellied Legionnaires snap to attention, salute and rush to tell Senator John Glenn the name of the atoll they helped defend in World War II.
“Babies are thrust at him. He is asked to autograph $20 bills or shirt cuffs or, at a country airport in Iowa, the cover of a 1962 issue of Life magazine that bears his photograph over the worshipful caption ‘The Making of a Brave Man.’ ”
But it was not to be, and Glenn lost out.
Whittaker remembers how the astronaut reacted to the adulation.
“He was understanding and gracious,” he says. “Generally, people who have worked their way up, they, what would you say, they don’t have some insecurities.”
Whittaker says they’d talk with each other on the phone about once a year.
“We checked in,” says Whittaker. “We’re getting old, right?”
Says Whittaker about his friend, “He was a beautiful guy.”