A tale of trailblazers: Dover man’s mom worked on John Glenn’s staff

DOVER — When Dover’s Rivers D. McCreary III heard the news of John Glenn’s death at the age of 95 last Thursday images of another trailblazing hero came rushing into his mind — his mother.

Christine McCreary, Rivers’ mom, was a pioneer on Capitol Hill and worked on Mr. Glenn’s staff when he served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Ohio from 1975 until 1998, when he chose not to run for reelection after serving four terms.

Mr. Glenn, who became a symbol of the space age and was the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, worked closely and developed a deep admiration for Mrs. McCreary, who was one of the first African-American’s to work professionally on Capitol Hill back in 1953.

In fact, the two became so close that Mr. Glenn gave the eulogy at her son James’ funeral in 1996 and also invited her to Cape Canaveral in Florida on Oct. 29, 1998, to watch him go back into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, some 36 years after his milestone three orbits around Earth.

“When I heard (Mr. Glenn) had passed it just hit me hard,” Mr. McCreary said. “Just to know somebody like that … as much as he was famous, he was even more so humble. I was very impressed with him.

An autographed photo of Christine McCreary with Sen. John Glenn. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“He was just down to earth, very much a people person, and I admired that about him. Especially when he took the time out to spend the day to eulogize my brother … that said a lot about him. I know he couldn’t be at everything, but he and his wife Annie, they thought a lot of my mother.”

Mr. Glenn even called the Delaware Capitol Police to offer his congratulations after Mr. McCreary, a 24-year veteran of the Air Force as an air traffic controller, was hired to work for the department in 1992.

An autographed photo of Rivers McCreary with Sen. John Glenn. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Those are the kinds of qualities that Mr. McCreary said he remembers about the legendary Mr. Glenn.

“When I went to work for the Capitol Police in Dover, his office called to congratulate me,” he said. “He also gave the eulogy at my brother James McCreary’s funeral in Washington, D.C.

“He gave the eulogy and spent the day with my father, my mother and myself. He cleaned his whole slate and spent the whole day with us. You don’t see too many Senators do stuff like that.”

A trailblazer in her own right

Mrs. McCreary, who died in Dover on May 30, 2006, at the age of 92, caught the eye of Stuart Symington when he was elected to the Senate as a Missouri Democrat in 1952.

“(Mr. Symington) had gone to a (Federal Security Administration) secretarial pool and he needed somebody to take dictation and none of the other secretaries could do it and my mother raised her hand and said, ‘Hey, I can do it,’” Mr. McCreary said.

Rivers D. McCreary displays photos of his mother, Christine McCreary, time while working on Capital Hill with Sen. John Glenn. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“She did it and he was so impressed by her that he put her on his staff immediately and she stayed there until he retired (in 1977). When he retired, he personally recommended her to Senator John Glenn.”

It was while working on Mr. Symington’s staff that Mrs. McCreary left her own personal mark as a trailblazer.

An autographed photo by Sen. John Glenn to Christine McCreary. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

There were few African Americans who held professional positions in the Senate back in 1953 – and Mrs. McCreary was one of them. Back then, the Senate restaurant in the Capitol and the staff cafeteria in the Senate Office Building remained unofficially segregated.

While most of the kitchen staff, waiters and cafeteria workers were black, the patrons were exclusively white. Mrs. McCreary was among the first to challenge the de facto segregation by choosing to dine regularly in the staff cafeteria.

“When she was on (Sen. Symington’s) staff she would go down to the Senate cafeteria to eat and they kept pushing the food off her plate and everything,” said Mr. McCreary. “She was a very sophisticated and small lady. She didn’t holler back and curse anybody or anything like that … it was just her steadfastness that broke that barrier of de facto segregation in the Senate cafeteria.

“Finally, (Sen. Symington) went down (to the cafeteria) with her one day and sat right down there with her and they said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to back off this lady.’ And she stayed there that whole time.”

Mr. McCreary added that his father, Rivers McCreary Jr., also became the first black musician in the Washington Redskins Marching Band and played his trumpet with the best of them.

Teaming up with a legend

Mrs. McCreary remained on Sen. Symington’s staff until he retired in 1977. It was then that he provided a recommendation for her to go work for Sen. Glenn, who was serving his first term.

Sen. Glenn promptly elected to hire her as a member of his staff and the two worked alongside one another until both retired at the same time in 1998.

In a May 19, 1998, interview with Donald A. Ritchie, who was an associate historian for the U.S. Senate Historical Office, Mrs. McCreary said it was virtually a seamless transition working for the pair of senators.

“In fact, Sen. Glenn is so easy-going and so for real that it’s just like you could be talking to a friend or a brother,” Mrs. McCreary said in May 1998. “No, I didn’t find it strange at all, until this day I don’t.

“If (Mr. Glenn) sees me in the hall, he’ll hug me. He’s just that type of person. And Mrs. Glenn, too. And it’s always ‘Mrs. Glenn’ or ‘Senator.’ I don’t take it upon myself to say ‘John Glenn.’ I don’t do that. I give them the respect and professional courtesy they deserve. But I was brought up that way.”

Mr. McCreary said that Sen. Glenn was close to all of the members of his staff.

“Even when Sen. Glenn went down there for his launch into space in 1998 he took his whole staff,” he said. “My mother got to see that space launch from the VIP section.

“She just said, ‘I was sitting there and all of a sudden this big ball went up in the air and there was all of this noise and everything.’ She said it was amazing.”

Mrs. McCreary told Mr. Ritchie that was just part of the family atmosphere that Mr. Glenn brought to his team on Capitol Hill.

However, she also learned that Mr. Glenn didn’t play around very much, either.

“Now if there’s an undercurrent, or something’s going on, he will sense it and he will straighten it out, or get rid of the person that’s doing it,” she said in her 1998 interview with Ritchie. “Now, he doesn’t play around. He’s very strict about things.

“You do some silly, stupid things, you’re gone. I mean, you’re not gone two or three weeks later, you’re gone that day. He does not play. Once you know that, you don’t do that.”

The recent death of Mr. Glenn brought all of those memories of his mother and her 45-year career on Capitol Hill come rushing back to life for Mr. McCreary.

“Throughout the years, (my mother) met such political figures as Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and quite a few other famous minority people at that time in history,” he said. “Her story is something else.”

It turned out that her story went on and eventually touched the reaches of outer space – and Mr. Glenn.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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