At long last, John Winant emerges from the shadows and into our hearts


Monitor staff

Published: 06-30-2017 11:41 PM

The bronze image of John Winant, unveiled Friday at the State Library, stayed covered and unseen through most of the ceremony.

Just like the memory of the man himself. But eventually the black cloth came off, removed by a pair of family members and the sculptor himself. So now, long live the name of John Winant, whose accomplishments are as big as the man was modest, but who faded under the radar because nobody could handle the truth:

Winant killed himself at his Concord home in 1947.

“It’s the sad tragedy of his past,” Joan O’Meara Winant, John’s daughter-in-law, told me before the event. “People were afraid to even talk about him for many, many years. Suicide was not talked about in the old days.”

It’s not talked about much these days, either. If society had treated mental illness like, well, an illness, we’d know a lot more about Winant. And we would have known it sooner, too.

We would have known that he was a three-time New Hampshire governor who gave money to people on the street during The Depression. We would have known that he fostered our alliance with Great Britain during World War II, and that he walked the streets of London to offer comfort and kind words to the British while German war planes obliterated the city, and that he created a bipartisan climate in Washington D.C., that politicians could learn from today, and that he founded the social security system, and that he founded the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, and that he purchased the land that served as the home for the Old Man of The Mountain.

Somewhere along the line, though, Winant lost hope, and it’s safe to say that he was a tortured soul for years before he shot himself dead at age 58.

His marriage had dissolved and his wife was estranged. His relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s daughter had ended. He had fallen into debt. And the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had left his political career in doubt after he had risen to Ambassador to Great Britain.

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“He had to have suffered greatly,” said his grandson, Dr. John Winant Jr., a pediatrician who lives in New Jersey. “There were so many things that were acting against him. There was no future in politics, no support there, and I’m sure that was as low as he could be, and as a consequence, even today the stigma of depression and suicide goes on.”

What might have been had depression been treated like cancer or diabetes or the flu? That’s what the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Ken Norton, wondered when I called him seeking input.

“The little bit I know is he had a number of different things that piled up and he ended his life,” Norton said. “But suicide is preventable if we know the signs. What might have given him hope?”

I also called former State Supreme Court Justice John Broderick, who’s been on a Grateful Dead-like tour the last 13 months, trying to change the perception of depression. Broderick’s son, once suffering from mental illness, attacked Broderick with a baseball bat before serving time and straightening his life out.

“I’m sure depression was prominent,” Broderick said, “and I wonder if John Winant ever spoke to someone about his mental illness. My guess is he didn’t, because if he had it would have ended his political career, so when you think about what he endured and what he accomplished while suffering, it makes his contribution more extraordinary.”

I knew this is what I wanted to write about, after I’d written a column covering Winant’s greatness just three months ago. But I worried how to raise the topic. This was a day to celebrate. How would his family react?

Turns out, both his grandson and daughter-in-law brought the subject up to me. They wanted to talk about it, bring it into the open, cast aside the perceived shame involved, treat depression as a mental health problem, not a weakness or a defeat or anything like that.

I was told that Winant was an insomniac, and that he paced back and forth in front of the fireplace in his private library, painfully pondering what to do about the death penalty bill that lay before him.

“I think it’s wonderful that we’re finally talking more openly about this,” said O’Meara Winant, who lives in New York City.

When asked if this was the proper time and forum to address the issue of mental illness, O’Meara Winant told me, “Absolutely, absolutely.”

Added Winant Jr., “It’s sad that in our society this is what we do. If you take your own life or you suffer from depression, you are scarred. It’s one of these things where it’s difficult to deal with.”

Still, there were reminders of old, stale thoughts. Michael Hirschfeld, the rector of St. Paul’s School, Winant’s alma mater, shook his head when asked why his school waited years before allowing one of its most famous graduates a final resting place on the historic campus.

“Why the school did not accept his body, obviously it makes no sense to me,” Hirschfeld said after the ceremony. “It’s sort of inconceivable.”

Elsewhere, Winant Jr. told me he had planned to talk about his father’s death on Friday, how and why it happened, how the story could enlighten others. He changed his mind.

“That’s what I was going to bring up,” he told me. “Then I decided that maybe I shouldn’t do so.”

In the program handed out to the guests and few hundred citizens who filled a closed-off Park Street, the final paragraph read, “After the war, Winant returned to Concord, where he died on November 3, 1947.”

That’s it. No mention of what happened. In fact, no one said anything about Winant’s death until the man who made the statue, Brett Grill of Michigan, said at the end, “History sort of forgot about John Winant unfortunately for a while, and I think we’ve come a long way as a culture in thinking of mental illness and that we should not be defined by our lowest and hopeless moments, but we should be defined by our best moments.”

The statue shows Winant at his best. He’s not on a pedestal, instead standing on ground level, like everyone else. His dignified features showing his approachable nature wear well with his signature three-piece suit. He’s here, downtown, forever, telling his story, the one about courage, character, kindness and, yes, an illness that needs to move from under a dark cloth.

Just like the man himself did.

“You served our country with such honor and distinction,” Rep. Steve Shurtleff, the master of ceremonies, told the crowd. “John Winant, welcome home.”