— By Jerry Cates. First published on 23 February 2017 and last expanded on 26 July 2017. © Govinthenews Vol. 8:2(1).
William Manchester’s scholarly biography of Winston Spencer Churchill, entitled “The Last Lion”, provides excellent insight into Churchill’s character and the historical period during which he served the British Crown and the peoples of the British Empire. But exactly who, and how important, was this man we know as Winnie Churchill?
To begin with, in a 2002 poll, Churchill was named the Greatest Briton of all time. His foresight in recognizing, early on, the threat that Adolf Hitler posed to the free world was shared by almost none of his peers, yet history proved him amazingly prescient. Few doubt that he, by the force of his indomitable spirit and will, almost singlehandedly saved Great Britain from near-certain destruction at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. He is, today, regarded by all who know of his life and times as having been one of the most influential characters in British history. It is no surprise, then, that his complex legacy continues to stimulate intense debate among historians.
Such accolades cannot help but impress any serious, objective observer. Yet, Winston Spencer Churchill was also deeply flawed. If, as you read that caveat, you reflexively think “So? Is that not true of all great personages?” you thereby exhibit an excellent grasp of human history. All of mankind’s great movers and shakers were and are beset by a host of blemishes. All had and have curious proclivities that, to those aware of them, take some of the blush off their otherwise rosy accomplishments.
That said, it is most likely also true that without those taints and stains such personages would not have been able to accomplish the momentous feats for which history marks them. Great characters seem always marred by great flaws. They come together, as it were, in a package that includes warts and all…
I first learned of the peculiar nature of Winnie’s personality traits in 1964, from my good friend Valerie Evans. She had earlier completed a stint as a member of his private nursing staff in England, before tiring of the ho-hum tedium of that work and taking on a more challenging job in Asia. Now she’d arrived in Saigon, the bride of the newly installed pastor of St. Christopher’s Anglican Church.
I, a young airman stationed at Tan Son Nhut Airbase, on the outskirts of the capitol city of South Vietnam, was engaged to a talented young lady in Orlando, Florida. When I returned to the States, we planned to marry in Orlando’s most famous Episcopal Church, the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, on North Magnolia Street, in the heart of the city. My erstwhile fiancée (we never married, for reasons I won’t go into here) was an accomplished clarinetist in Orlando’s Symphony Orchestra. Having performed at the Cathedral on numerous occasions, she was determined that we must be married there. To make that happen, I, a Methodist at the time, must first become an episcopalian. St. Christopher’s was the only Anglican Episcopal church in Saigon, so I began taking lessons in the faith as soon as Tad — the Rev. Theodore H. Evans — arrived and could begin instructing me in the faith.
Tad’s predecessor, the Rev, Walden Pell II, had served St. Christopher’s and all of the Anglican parishes in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos since 1960. Pell, who had completed his assignment in Southeast Asia in the fall of 1963, had now returned to Maryland. There he pastored the Augustine Parish, in Chesapeake City, Md., from late 1963 until retiring in 1968.
In the early months of 1964 Tad regularly gave me the private lessons I needed for confirmation. We met in his home, a spacious villa that served as St. Christopher’s parsonage, once a week. In the process I gained not only a new church, but two wonderful friends. After each teaching session, which was always conducted in the late afternoon, Tad graciously invited me to stay for dinner and I eagerly accepted. Tad and Val were a beautiful, exciting couple, and though they were both eight years older than I, we bonded in a special way as, over the evening meal and afterward, we discussed the war and our past and present lives.
Tad was a native of Alabama, and had met Val while on assignment as an ordained priest in Hong Kong. He would later become, and retire as, Episcopal chaplain at Harvard University, his Alma Mater. Valerie, an accomplished nurse with a spirit for adventure, had left London to serve as a nurse where Tad, a bachelor, was pastoring a small flock of Hong Kong Anglicans. She soon fell in love with her priest, and when he proposed she quickly accepted. Perhaps she was unaware, at the time, that from there she would travel to the world’s premier war-torn nation, the wife of an ardent pacifist… There her husband would deliver, every Sunday, stinging sermons of admonition to the highest ranking U.S. and British officials in the region.
So, while Tad ministered t0 these influential men, Valerie ministered to their wives. No doubt her training as a nurse, combined with a strong but compassionate will, proved especially beneficial as she helped them get through the myriad personal struggles each faced. Without question, her work was incredibly stressful, and she appreciated every opportunity to unwind that came her way.
Amidst it all, Val and Tad also ministered to me, a young, lonely, USAF enlisted man determined to carry out the wishes of the woman I’d then planned to marry. Most likely they welcomed the opportunity to spend time with someone so low on the totem pole as to be entirely non-threatening. With me they could relax, blow off some steam, and be themselves. My mother was, like Tad, not only from Alabama but was also as ardent a pacifist as he, so despite the fact I was anything but pacifistic in nature, we still felt we had much in common. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. It was therapeutic, for each of us.
During these informal dinner and after-dinner sessions, Valerie often described some of her experiences as Winnie’s private nurse. He was, according to her, one of the most unusual and perplexing men she’d ever met. Though in his eighties at the time, he often behaved in ways that — while never crossing any of the indelible boundaries of human decency — could only be described as impetuous and childish. This I found unbelievable. As an inveterate student of history, my respect for Churchill was boundless. At the time I thought she might be exaggerating, so comical and outlandish were the stories she told. When I expressed doubts, though, she made it clear she was relating unvarnished, simple truths. Tad vouchsafed all she said. Further, they insisted that such accounts were well-known by all who knew Winnie well. Winnie’s faults, far from being hidden, were out in the open, on display for all who wished to see them. He was, from all indications, the quintessential transparent man.
Well, that was 53 years ago. Winnie died the next year, at age 90. Over the intervening period I’ve read a number of stories written by a host of individuals who knew him well. Though all extolled his accomplishments, like Val they were all equally fascinated by the seeming defects that peppered his personality and behavior.
When, in early 2016, Donald Trump entered the race for president of the United States in a serious way, I delved into the vagaries of his past to discover, for myself, just what kind of man he was. In that process I was struck by what appeared to be significant, even uncanny similarities between the Donald Trump that my current study was portraying, and the Winston Churchill Valerie Evans had described to me decades earlier. Was my mind deceiving me, I wondered, or were those parallels real?
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