Katy Burns: A governor – a hero – lost, then found

  • In celebration of Independence Day, John Winant, American ambassador to Britain, gave a garden party reception at the American Embassy in London on July 4, 1942, which was used for the first time since the war for this occasion. In this photo, Ambassador Winant chats to American nurses Helen Couch and Helen MacDonald, who were invited to the garden party reception. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/2/2017 12:30:14 AM

Our current governor’s father already has his own official memorial, the John H. Sununu Youth Service Center in Manchester, and he’s mostly remembered now for taking a government limo from Washington, D.C., to a New York City auction while he was chief of staff for President George H. W. Bush so he could spend some $5,000 bidding on rare postage stamps.

One of his successors, Stephen E. Merrill, has had the (dubious?) pleasure of having the headquarters of the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles named after him, although the most memorable thing I can recall his doing is getting rid of the ugly gates at the Hampton and Everett turnpike toll plazas.

And the Merrill building is tucked neatly into the sprawling Meldrim Thomson State Office Complex, so named even though as governor Thomson visited South Africa and returned praising its apartheid policy, used a government aide to pry into his opponents’ tax records, and urged that the state’s National Guard be armed with nuclear weapons.

Yet one of the most accomplished and significant governors in our state’s history, John Gilbert Winant, has been – at least until very recently – largely un-honored and mostly forgotten by the state he led and loved from the day he came here as a 15-year-old student at St. Paul’s School.

This was certainly in part because of how he died – by his own hand, with a gun – and when. In 1947 suicide was considered both sinful and shameful. Its victims were barred from burial in consecrated property, and mention of them was banished from “decent” society.

Another reason, I suspect, is that – unlike Thomson, Sununu or Merrill – John Winant didn’t have a natural political advocacy group to keep his memory alive, to burnish his reputation and to push for memorials.

He wasn’t a Democrat, so why would the Democrats care? And while he might have worn a Republican label, he really wasn’t much of Republican either, not by the standards then and certainly not now.

He was a champion of the people, but “the people” can be poorly organized – and have depressingly short memories.

The state’s first three-term governor, Winant held office in the early years of the Great Depression. The state and its people were on the road to financial disaster, and Winant found his calling: social reform.

Former Monitor reporter Annmarie Timmins wrote an affectionate and admiring profile of Winant for The New Hampshire Century, a 2001 book edited by Felice Belman and Mike Pride.

“By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, New Hampshire had already glimpsed the crisis to come. Half the state’s farms had closed, mill owners had cut wages and nearly every fifth factory worker was out of a job,” she wrote. “Never before had New Hampshire needed a governor like John Gilbert Winant.”

Winant was shy and a poor public speaker, not a natural politician. But Winant’s passion wasn’t politics. It was public service.

He “was guided by his instincts,” Timmins wrote. He “embraced valuable programs.” He extended to strangers “the legendary generosity he had for friends.” He told the Concord police to provide breakfast to hungry transients and covered the cost.

And he pushed hard for legislation he thought could help: Old age insurance, a minimum wage for women and children, emergency relief and enactment of measures to prevent foreclosures on farms and factory workers’ homes. He took the burden off towns and cities by turning highway construction over to the state.

Winant turned the traditionally part-time job of governor into a full-time one simply by showing up daily and working longer hours than everyone else. He regularly emptied his pockets of change for the poor he met on his walk to work or waiting for him at the State House.

He was one of the first governors to embrace President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, providing vital jobs for Granite Staters. With federal and state money, he helped to strengthen state industries, farms and recreation, improving rural roads and building parks.

FDR knew a good person – as well as a potential political rival – when he saw one, and in 1935 he recruited the New Hampshire governor to serve as the first chairman of the brand-new Social Security board, where Winant worked hard to ensure that the new flood of money was properly invested and didn’t fall into the clutches of those eager to divert (and corrupt) it.

FDR came back to Winant in 1941, when he desperately needed someone new as ambassador to the United Kingdom to counter the ill will engendered by previous ambassador Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan, who became a notorious Hitler appeaser, opposing this country’s supporting the British as they were being blitzed by German bombs.

“I know more about the European situation than anybody else,” Kennedy boasted to the Boston Sunday Globe in 1940.

One alienated Brit’s description of the senior Kennedy was succinct (and perhaps presciently familiar to Americans today): “We have a rich man, untrained in diplomacy, unlearned in history and politics, who is a great publicity seeker and who apparently is ambitious to be the first Catholic president of the U.S.” Thank God, at least Joe Kennedy didn’t succeed.

In contrast, John Winant was an immediate hit, starting with his initial public assurance: “There’s no place I’d rather be than in England.”

He took up residence in London during the blitz, walking the streets of the city – often with Winston Churchill – after the bombings, bringing solace to its victims and messages of courage to their rescuers. He became recognizable to – and won the hearts of – the city’s besieged residents. He carried the British cause to Washington.

Several years ago, Lynne Olson wrote a critically acclaimed book recounting the stories of three Americans who were critical in pushing Britain’s cause during the early days of that war and who became beloved by the people of the capital city. The three Citizens of London were fabled newsman Edward R. Murrow, who broadcast nightly from the terrorized city, U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman and our own John Gilbert Winant.

After the war, Winant, exhausted and broke, with his personal life in shambles, came back to Concord to write his memoirs and rebuild his life. Instead, in November of 1947, he took that life with a revolver.

And he became a non-person, only to be rediscovered slowly. A Winant Fellowship Program was established in 1982 at UNH for students considering a career in public service. In 2009, the governor’s son Rivington and his wife, Joan, donated to the city of Concord for Winant Park, 85 acres with trails for hiking, fishing and bicycling abutting St. Paul’s School.

And on Friday, in a ceremony attended by two Winant family members along with a host of other dignitaries, this man who so brilliantly exemplified what a life of true public service means, was honored with a beautifully fitting memorial on the lawn of the New Hampshire State Library.

It is a welcoming bronze bench next to a human size bronze sculpture of John Winant inviting weary passers-by to stop and rest.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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