Humble in Life and in Death: John Gilbert Winant Honored with New Statue
John Gilbert Winant is the most famous New Hampshire politician you may never have heard of.
Quiet and humble, he was a decorated soldier, three-term Governor, and eventually, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom during World War II. But his tragic death, in many ways, has always overshadowed his life.
On Friday at 10 a.m., a new statue of Winant is being unveiled outside the New Hampshire State Library in Concord, just steps from the capitol building where he once worked.
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The statue recognizes not only his accomplishments, but also is a testament to John Winant’s personality.
“Well, he was a very charming individual, apparently,” says Dick Hesse, professor emeritus at the UNH School of Law, and a Winant fan.
“It was said that when he walked into a room, women immediately fell in love with him. Not quite sure what to make of that, but in any event.”
Maybe it was Winant’s neatly parted black hair, or his thick bushy eyebrows. Tall and thin, he earned comparisons, in both demeanor and appearance, to Abraham Lincoln.
Winant was born in New York City in 1889, and sent north to St. Paul’s School in Concord for his education.
“We’re obviously really proud that he went to school here,” says Mike Hirschfeld, the rector of St. Paul’s.
Winant would never really leave the school. Despite dropping out of college, he was invited back to teach a history class at St. Paul’s, eventually buying a house just around the corner from campus. Within a few years, his academic life was put on hold, though, with the outbreak of World War I.
“He was in the Army Air Corps. He was a flyer, and rose to the rank of captain,” explains Steve Shurtleff, New Hampshire House Democratic Leader, who has helped lead the campaign to erect Winant’s statue.
Winant commanded an observation squadron that worked behind enemy lines. It was dangerous work.
“He was decorated for his service. But very humble about what he did,” says Shurtleff.
After the war, Winant came back to Concord, and in 1924, ran for Governor as a progressive Republican concerned about the working class.
“His mission was shorter working hours, better working conditions particularly for women, some sort of child labor regulation,” explains Hesse.
After a few years out of office, Winant regained the Governor’s seat just as the Great Depression was taking hold. His personal acts of charity would become legend.
“There’s a story about one time the Governor coming in in the middle of winter, into the Governor’s office, and he had no top coat,” recalls Shurtleff. “And he was wet because it was snowing out, and they said, ‘Governor where’s your coat?’ And he said, ‘Well, I saw somebody on the way in today that needed it more, and I gave it to him.’ That was Governor Winant.”
Winant’s reputation and his cross-party embrace of FDR’s New Deal plan helped garner him national attention. In 1935, the President appointed him to lead the newly formed Social Security Board. That’s not coincidentally why New Hampshire social security numbers start with the lowest offered: 001-, 002- or 003-.
The next stage in Winant’s life would take place in Europe. In late 1940, London was a city under siege from relentless German bombers.
“It really looked bad, they were holding on by the skin of their teeth,” explains Lynne Olson, author of Citizens of London.
Ambassador Joseph Kennedy considered England a lost cause, and wanted out of his role. FDR would turn to John Winant as the next ambassador. He showed the citizens of London, immediately upon his arrival, that America stood with them.
“The first thing he said,” says Olson, “when he got to England, was “There’s no place I’d rather be.”
Great Britain was living on the edge, and Winant lived on the edge with them. During the air raids Winant would walk the streets of London alongside the fire brigades, helping people out of the rubble as best he could.
The actions spoke volumes to the British people, and in return, the people of London adored John Winant. That popularity helped draw Winant into the inner circle of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The American ambassador was in Churchill’s company the night news broke of Pearl Harbor. He spent many nights with the Churchill family. Winant, at this point, didn’t have much family of his own.
“Governor Winant for some years had been estranged from his own wife. And it was a very rocky relationship,” says Steve Shurtleff.
Winant would develop a serious relationship with Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, who herself was in a failed marriage. As his time in London was coming to a close, Winant proposed to Sarah Churchill, but she declined the invitation.
“She provided something he needed in his life, and I think it was very disturbing to him to lose that relationship,” says Shurtleff.
In 1946, Winant came back to Concord, New Hampshire alone, exhausted and in financial trouble. He was working on his memoirs, but hated the task. It all came crashing down in November of 1947, when he went to his second floor bedroom, and killed himself with a handgun.
“I think he really thought there was no place in the world for him. He had nothing, really, to live for any more,” says Lynne Olson.
While English royalty marked his death and contributions in life, in the United States, in New Hampshire, the suicide was just too taboo. He was simply gone.
Though St. Paul’s initially refused to accept Winant’s remains, his body was eventually laid to rest in the small cemetery on the school’s campus. There, his gravestone bears the following:
“Doing the day’s work, day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases, wanting not only for ourselves, but for others.”
“A wonderful expression I think of our highest hopes as a country,” says Hirshfeld. “And as a people.”
That expression of service, that Lincoln-like way Winant had of connecting, there’s a hint of that in the design of the new statue of him in Concord. Winant is wearing a suit and tie, his overcoat draped over his arm, posed with his hat in hand. A humble man in life and in death.