A NH governor who did much for the world to finally receive recognition
By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM New Hampshire Sunday News
Gov. Winant is buried in Saint Paul’s Cemetery in Concord. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)
CONCORD - John Gilbert Winant left his mark on his state, his country and the world.
But most Granite Staters don't even know his name.
A three-term governor and lifelong humanitarian, Winant saw New Hampshire through the worst years of the Depression and helped launch the Social Security program. As ambassador to Britain during World War II, he walked the streets of London offering hope and help to bombing victims.
Van McLeod, commissioner of the state Department of Cultural Resources, calls Winant “one of the most important figures in the first half of the 20th century.”
A memorial to Winant will be built next spring on the grounds of the New Hampshire State Library. A bronze statue of Winant, hat in hand and coat over his arm, will invite passersby to sit a spell on a nearby bench.
Organizers say the recognition is long overdue.
House Democratic leader Stephen Shurtleff of Concord chairs the John Winant Memorial Committee, which is raising funds for the project. He sponsored the measure to honor Winant.
That was in 2011, after a particularly trying session in the Legislature, Shurtleff recalled.
He had first encountered Winant in Lynne Olson's 2011 book, “Citizens of London.” As Shurtleff learned more about the man, he discovered that the Republican Winant had worked with Democrats on a number of public relief projects during the Depression.
“He had a way of bringing people together, and people trusted him,” he said.
“I thought, where are the John Winants of today?” he said. “Where are the people that cross party lines to work for the good of the people?”
Granite State attraction
Born in New York City, Winant came to New Hampshire to attend Saint Paul's School and fell in love with the place.
McLeod said Winant saw himself as a “Lincoln Republican.” He calls him “a true humanitarian.”
As governor, McLeod said, “He would go out and he would give people 50-cent pieces.”
That was enough to buy a place to stay overnight and a hot breakfast. “And it wasn't from state coffers; it was his own money,” McLeod said.
One winter day, the governor arrived at his office without his overcoat, he said. “He gave it to somebody who needed it more than he did.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped Winant to set up the new Social Security system. (That's why Social Security numbers for folks born here start with 000, 001 or 002.)
Winant later served as director of the International Labor Organization and then was appointed U.S. ambassador to Britain, replacing Joseph Kennedy. Unlike his predecessor, he pushed for American involvement in the expanding war in Europe.
Winant, who had been a pilot during the first World War, stayed in London, living on the same rations as its residents, McLeod said. “He walked out into the streets during the bombing and helped people that were injured.”
Winant became friends with Winston Churchill and had a love affair with Churchill's daughter, even though both were married, according to Olson's book. Winant was with Churchill when Pearl Harbor was attacked and America at last entered the war.
William Dunlap is president of New Hampshire Historical Society. He knew Winant's name but until he read Olson's book, he said, “I had no idea how important a figure he was in the last century, nationally and internationally.”
Dunlap recently learned that his family has a personal connection to the man.
It was during the Depression and his paternal grandfather had just lost his job. He ran into Winant on Concord's Main Street and told him he was out of work.
“And Winant said, ‘Come 'round and see me in my office tomorrow.' So my grandfather went there and Winant was able to plug him into a job in the state government.”
There are countless such stories told of the governor helping folks who were down on their luck, Dunlap said. “It just sort of speaks to the kind of individual he was.”
So how could such an important figure have slipped so quickly into obscurity?
It's likely because of how he died.
By all accounts, Winant returned from England depressed and discouraged. Sarah Churchill had rejected his marriage proposal. And with FDR's death, he no longer was a key player in the new Truman administration, according to historians.
On Nov. 3, 1947, Winant shot himself in his Concord home.
Shurtleff said he considers John Winant “the last casualty of World War II.”
“I think he was so worn out by his service in England,” he said. “That led partly to his depression.”
But his suicide meant Winant could not be buried where he desired: in the hallowed ground of the Episcopal cemetery at Saint Paul's School, where he had studied and taught.
Winant was buried in Blossom Hill Cemetery. But two decades later, the rules were relaxed and he was reinterred in the Saint Paul's Cemetery.
Daylilies and an American flag decorate the plot, where a granite marker is engraved with an excerpt from a speech Winant gave in 1946.
It reads in part: “Wanting not only for ourselves but for others also a fairer chance for all people everywhere ... Always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. ... That having dared to live dangerously, we have learned to live generously. ...”
Winant wasn't the best public speaker, Dunlap said. ?He was sort of awkward and halting. Yet he had this incredible authenticity and that just came through. He was a very compassionate person, and I think politics for him was an avenue to help humanity.”
Winant's name has been largely forgotten in America, but not in England, Dunlap said. “He is revered over there,” he said. “In today's terms, he was a rock star in England.''
Missouri sculptor J. Brett Grill has been commissioned to create the Winant statue; his previous work includes a 2010 statue of President Gerald Ford that stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Dunlap said the statue captures “the essence of Winant,” with his invitation to take a seat and chat a while. “He looks very approachable,” he said.
Shurtleff said the estimated project cost is about $250,000. He hopes plenty of Granite Staters will donate, even if it's just a little bit, in honor of the man who once gave 50-cent pieces to the needy. “He did so much for New Hampshire, the country and, really, the world.”
Money raised in excess of costs will go to a scholarship for New Hampshire students to attend the Advanced Studies Program at Saint Paul School.
McLeod noted the statue and bench are on the route schoolchildren take during their annual visits to the State House and state library. “So what I hope is really simple: To get his story told,” he said.
Shurtleff hopes the memorial serves “as a reminder to future generations to look to people like John Winant and ... try to do not what's good for our party but what's good for the people we serve. And to put politics aside.”
And Dunlap hopes it inspires folks to find out more about Winant. “And as people learn more about him, it might inform people's views about what they want to see in their political leaders.
“Maybe in some small way it will help move us in a better direction,” he said.