When do you let go of a loved one? It’s something every family struggles with.
The sorrow made for a sour Thanksgiving that first year, when you put an empty chair and place setting at the dinner table.
But the next year, the empty chair went to a fiance, the following year a new grandchild. And that portrait with a stately pose? You took it down to repaint a room, and then decided the new room looks better without it.
Eventually, the loved one transitions from relative to ancestor. The name comes up rarely now, only when a great aunt recounts family lineage.
Not the fate of William Hilair Jutras.
This Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of his death. Jutras has a new family — the couple hundred old soldiers who belong to the West Side American Legion hall named in his honor. When they have a beer and tell war stories, he’s among them, sitting in his own chair and table. It even has a place set for him.
The white-clothed table is a shrine.
It is roped off in a ceremonial corner where a candle burns (well, the orange filament of an electric candle flickers).
A portrait — a wild-haired, weary but handsome man in a dress Army uniform, tassles and all — hangs over the table like a ghost. There are also a few other photos, two folded flags, his military death notice and his Distinguished Service Cross medal, the Army’s second highest medal for gallantry.
And on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, three commemorations are in store for Jutras. Legion members and surviving members of the Jutras family gather at 11 a.m. at St. Augustin Cemetery for a graveside ceremony. At noon, members of the post will lay a wreath at his memorial at McGregor and Amory streets.
And a social hour and dinner will start at 4 p.m. at the post. Sen. Maggie Hassan and Mayor Joyce Craig are expected to show up at some point.
Meanwhile, the Millyard Museum opened an exhibit this week that focuses on World War I and the Manchester soldiers who died in the trenches of Europe.
“I think about him all the time,” said Vernon Leighton, a former Air Force sergeant and commander of the American Legion No. 43 Jutras Post. “The sacrifice he made. He saved his platoon. It’s a challenge that we believe in as veterans and share to this day.”
Jutras was one of five children whose parents lived in Manchester, according to a biography on the city website. He likely enlisted with the New Hampshire National Guard, and at one point he served on the Mexican border with nearly 59,000 guardsmen from across the country before the U.S. entered World War I.
He died at Riaville, France.
According to the history, a platoon on his right flank came under attack from a volley of gunfire. Through deadly machine gun and mortar fire, Jutras carried a message to the platoon commander, according to the commendation for his Distinguished Cross.
“It then being necessary to establish liaison with the company on the right in order to save this platoon from annihilation, and knowing that he faced almost certain death, this gallant officer unhesitatingly volunteered for this mission and crossed a terrain swept by converging machine gun fire. Mortally wounded, he delivered his message in time to save his platoon,” according to the commendation.
World War I casualties in the city were not recognized as the first or second soldier from the city to die. It was the first Irishman, or the first Greek, on down the ethnic lines, according to John Clayton, executive director of the Manchester Historic Association. (First Irishman Henry Sweeney got the state’s second American Legion post named after him; first Greek Christos Kalivas is honored by a downtown park and elderly high rise).
“Ethnicities claimed their own,” Clayton said.
Jutras was the second Manchester Franco-American to die in the war. Lt. Aimee D. Genard was the first.
One hundred years later, Jutras’ death transcends his nationality, and his presence is everywhere. From St. Raphael Church, where his funeral was held, to St. Augustin Cemetery, where he is buried, to Mount Calvary Cemetery, where a monument to Jutras stands, created by sculptor Lucien Gosselin.
All this has made an impression on Anita Boisvert. Jutras was her great uncle — her maternal grandmother’s brother — and she started researching the family’s military history about three years ago, after her son joined the Marines.
The closest living family member to Jutras is her mother’s cousin, Lillian Jutras. Lillian Jutras lived in the same house as William Hilair Jutras, but she was born five years after he died. Lillian is 94, blind, deaf and lives in a nursing home.
“My parents, all they talked about was the Jutras Post. They got married there. It was a big thing,” she said.
Growing up, Boisvert knew Jutras as only the guy that the West Side Legion post was named after, and something about him dying while saving his platoon. Bosivert found the Service Cross in a box of family medals and donated it to the post.
“I’m getting more prouder every day when I go to that post,” Boisvert said, “Yeah, he’s my uncle.”