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Donor Winant dies at 85



Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011
Riv Winant fought on Okinawa with the Marines and later served as treasurer of the United Nations. But in the city where he spent his childhood, Winant's visible legacy is his 85-acre gift to the people of Concord.

Winant Park opened in 2009 and is dedicated to Winant's parents, Constance Russell Winant and John Gilbert Winant, a three-term governor of New Hampshire who later served as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during World War II, among other high-profile posts.

"In many ways, my husband dedicated his life to two things: To bring his father's legacy out of the shadows . . . and the other was trying to live the life of kindness and generosity that his father always did," said Joan O'Meara Winant. "And I think he succeeded very well on both those counts."

Rivington Winant, known as "Riv," died Feb. 3 after a long illness. He was 85.

 'Proud of his father'

He was accomplished in his own right, a World War II veteran who studied at Oxford University, had a decades-long career at the U.N. and dedicated much of his retirement to philanthropic work. Friends described Winant, who lived in New York, as an old-school gentleman, soft-spoken with a good sense of humor, a lover of history and an enthusiastic storyteller.

Still, Winant, the youngest of three children, remains inextricably associated with the father he greatly admired.

John Gilbert Winant, a progressive Republican, was elected governor in 1924 and again in 1930 and 1932. Faced with the immense suffering of the Great Depression, he implemented a minimum wage, public works projects and welfare aid.

Stories of Winant's empathy and generosity abound -- how he emptied his pockets giving money to the needy outside the State House, that he told the Concord police to buy breakfast for transients and send him the bill. By most accounts a poor public speaker, he was nevertheless popular and considered a potential Republican presidential candidate.

President Roosevelt tapped Winant as the U.S. representative to the International Labor Organization in Geneva, then as the first chairman of the Social Security Board. He returned to Geneva, becoming director of the I.L.O., before Roosevelt sent him to London in 1941 as the U.S. ambassador, a critical post he occupied through World War II.

After the war, Winant was passed over for the job of U.N. secretary-general, a post he coveted, and returned to Concord to write his memoirs. Depressed, facing financial troubles and out of the thick of world affairs, he shot himself on Nov. 3, 1947, at the age of 58.

Winant largely passed out of the public memory - in part, perhaps, because of the stigma of suicide. Dean Dexter, a former state lawmaker who has researched Winant, said the governor became "kind of a forgotten figure in New Hampshire."

But Riv Winant was "immensely, immensely proud of his father," said Lynne Olson, author of Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour. She interviewed Winant for the book.

"I sensed that his father had been ignored for so long, and he was intent on doing something about it," she said this week.

Citizens of London was published last year, with John Winant as a primary character. It meant much to his son, said Joan Winant.

"Riv died much happier now that Citizens of London is in print," she said.

 Land as memorial

And, in Concord, there was the park.

Riv Winant owned 85 acres of land near St. Paul's School, close to Fisk Road and Pleasant Street, hills and forests where he played as a child and continued to visit as an adult.

About a decade ago, he and Joan began approaching officials about doing something with the land. They connected with Mike Barwell, then working in the boarding school's communications office.

Initially, Bardwell said, they wanted to build houses for workers at nearby Concord Hospital. But the property was landlocked, without road access, making that option difficult.

"I told them, 'You really ought to take this land, that is really landlocked, and turn it into a memorial for your father,' " recalled Barwell, now spokesman for the State Employees' Association.

It took years to work out the details, including putting a parking lot and access to the park on St. Paul's-owned land. The city would own the park and the Five Rivers Conservation Trust would hold a conservation easement to protect the land from development.

The park, complete with trails and an informational kiosk about John Winant, opened to the public in 2009.

Riv Winant told the Monitor that he hoped the land would become "something that would be useful to the people of Concord, and something my father would like."

The park quickly became popular with Concord residents and others, a fact that was gratifying to Winant, said Mark Zankel, the chairman of the Five Rivers board of trustees.

"I think he really had two things that he wanted to accomplish with the establishment of Winant Park," Zankel said. "The first was to recognize and properly memorialize his father . . . and the second was to provide a place for people to recreate and enjoy nature. . . . I think he accomplished both of those things."

Together with Olson's book, the park has helped bring public attention to John Winant's place in history - which, after all, was Riv Winant's goal.

"As much as he gave, I think it gave as much to him in satisfaction, in reclaiming his father's memory," Barwell said. "And I think that was important to him. . . . I think, to a certain extent, there was a lot of closure with that."

 'He loved Concord'

Rivington Russell Winant was born Oct. 25, 1925, in New York, moving three weeks later to New Hampshire, where his father was serving the first of his three terms as governor.

Winant grew up at 274 Pleasant St., now the site of the Unitarian Universalist Church, but left around the age of 8 to attend St. Bernard's School in New York. His father's government postings later took him to D.C. and beyond - St. Albans School in Washington, the International School in Geneva and Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts - but he often returned to New Hampshire for the holidays.

"He loved Concord above all other places," Joan Winant said.

Winant graduated from St. Albans in 1943 and entered Princeton University, where the freshman yearbook gave his activities as football, wrestling and student government. But he withdrew when he was drafted after his 18th birthday.

He didn't follow his father and older brother into the Army's air force. (John Winant had flown in World War I, and John Winant Jr.'s B-17 bomber was shot down over Germany in 1943. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, including time as a personal hostage of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.)

Instead, Riv Winant joined the Marines. The United Press wire service reported on Aug. 16, 1944, that "Marine Private First Class Rivington R. Winant . . . is anxious to see action in the Pacific," according to a copy of the article provided by Princeton's Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

A field telephone lineman in the 29th Marines, part of the 6th Marine Division, Winant landed on Okinawa with the U.S. invasion and served for six months in China after Japan surrendered.

"He was rightfully proud of being a Marine, even though he was the least warlike person possible," Joan Winant said.

He returned to Princeton after the war, but like his father, didn't find much academic success there. Winant then attended Balliol College at Oxford University, graduating with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics.

Winant, then 22, was at Oxford when his father committed suicide. Anthony Eden, his father's friend and the future prime minister, picked him up and took him in when the news reached England.

Eden "really sheltered him," Olson said, and Winant later spoke of Eden's "incredible kindness."

Winant became a securities analyst in New York and in 1958 went to work at the United Nations. He rose to become the organization's treasurer for 16 years, retiring in 1983. He married Joan O'Meara Winant in 1985.

After his retirement, Winant spent much of his time on charitable work, including as chairman of the board of the William T. Grant Foundation. He was a member of the Chancellor's Court of Benefactors, an honor for major donors to Oxford University.

The capstone of his work came two years ago, when Winant Park opened to the public.

The park "was really, truly, a beautiful thing in a beautiful state," Joan Winant said. "He really did feel, on one level, Concord was his home, and New Hampshire was his home, and he really took great sustenance from it."

Winant is survived by his wife and several nephews. The couple, who lived in Manhattan, didn't have any children.

A memorial service is scheduled for Feb. 26 in New York's Church of the Epiphany. Joan Winant requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Five Rivers Conservation Trust's fund for upkeep at Winant Park.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)