Voluntary Association

Heroics are often associated with a singular response in a moment of crisis, but what about a whole world in the aftermath of war? What do you call the thousands who answer the call?

In the 1950s, when I was just being born, my mother-in-law-to-be, a young Sally Humphreys, was spending her summer vacation in the East End of London, which was still in shambles from the Blitz of WWII. The exultation of the victory of the Allied Powers had faded, and the long road back to some kind of normalcy was finally going places, but not that fast. 

Mom (uh, “Sally” to you) recalls: “London was so flooded with wartime refugees and East Indians in the Borough of Stepney Dock area that recovery was slow and wartime rubble remained everywhere. When I was there, Britain had recently come off rationing and nutrition was a big issue.” 

These were big life experiences for a young New Hampshire woman, and it was a summer adventure she would not have had were it not for a certain New Hampshire man, John Gilbert Winant, former governor and our country’s WWII ambassador to Great Britain. Winant had lived alongside the British people and experienced the Blitz just like a local. He had come to help, and the British people had embraced him. Now more Americans were following in his steps, a group fittingly known as the Winant Volunteers.

“Our mission was to help as we could with civic issues as well as working with settlement houses, churches and similar groups to help with the problems at hand and brighten spirits,” she recalls. “What I can say for sure is that Winant was truly loved by the ordinary folk everywhere I went in London.”

Although the inspiration for the Winant Volunteers was, indeed, Ambassador Winant, it was left to his British friend Tubby Clayton, chaplain to the Queen and founder of Toc H (the UK version of the YMCA), to carry out the plan. The biography “Tubby Clayton: A Personal Saga” by Melville Harcourt includes this description of how it came about:

It was the American Ambassador who, after wandering time and again through smoking ruins left by a heavy raid, had got to know something of the guts and humour of the East Londoner, and had expressed the hope that some means would be devised to bring the Cockney a little closer to the heart of America. He was willing to do all in his power to further such an effort and … he informed Tubby privately that he had resolved to accompany him on his visits to American schools and colleges. Two days later the world learned that Winant had died by his own hand.

Some might think Winant a tragic figure for that final deed, just as some might call Winant a hero for his willingness to live dangerously, but it’s doubtful he would accept either title. The message of his life is not about big deeds in moments of crisis, but rather about the virtue and power of small acts of charity, courtesy, generosity and goodwill performed over an entire life. A good summary of his philosophy is engraved on his tombstone and is copied on the last page of our feature story on Winant.

The title I think he’d most approve of is the one given to Sally Humphreys and all the other idealistic young people who trekked to the East End of London to help out with the rebuilding after the war. It’s a word, like duty or sacrifice, that had a lot more meaning for young people of an earlier generation. Winant, just like Sally and others who followed in his footsteps, was a volunteer.

It’s a word worth dusting off and putting back into service. Maybe this summer.

Categories: Editor’s Note