Today is August 13 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you step into the unknown with confidence?” People who navigate the chaos know that striding into the unknown with confidence is a necessity if they are to translate their dreams into reality. Today’s post reviews the extraordinary life of John Gilbert Winant, who many could label ‘the most famous New Hampshire politician you may never have heard of.’
Born in New York City, Winant attended St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. He would attend Princeton University, but his poor grades led him to leave without graduating. He would return to St. Paul’s to teach history until 1916 when won election to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1916.
In 1917, he enlisted as a private in the United States Army Air Service, trained as a pilot, and commanded the 8th Aero Squadron (Observation) in France. At the time of his discharge two years later he had earned the rank of captain. Winant commanded an observation squadron that worked behind enemy lines. After returning to civilian life Winant married Constance Rivington Russell of Princeton on December 20, 1919.
After the war, Winant came back to Concord, and in 1924, ran for Governor as a progressive Republican concerned about the working class. 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 throughout his life would become legend. Prior to leaving for the war his monthly milk bill was extremely high because he ensured less fortunate families received such an important staple. As Governor he walked into his office one day wet and cold from the snow. When asked what happened to his coat Winant responded “Well, I saw somebody on the way in today that needed it more, and I gave it to him.”
In February 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Winant ambassador to Great Britain; a post he remained in until he resigned in March 1946. Upon landing at Bristol airport in England in March 1941, Winant announced, "I'm very glad to be here. There is no place I'd rather be at this time than in England." The remark heartened the country and British newspapers featured it dramatically on the front pages the next day.
During the Battle of Britain, Winant walked the streets of London, ablaze from the aerial bombardments, offering assistance to the injured amid the rubble of their homes and stores. His shy sincerity and quiet fearlessness endeared him to the British people, King George VI, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill and helped buoy the beleaguered nation.
Throughout the war, Winant drove himself relentlessly, day and night. He was already utterly exhausted when Roosevelt's death in April 1945 robbed him of his close friend and mentor. He now reported to the new U.S. President Harry Truman, a man who neither knew Winant well nor appreciated the extent of his wartime efforts.
Then, three months later, a landslide victory by the Labor Party swept Churchill out of office. Everywhere Winant turned, he saw the drama in which he had participated so significantly drawing to a close. In March 1946, President Truman appointed a new ambassador to London. Winant returned home.
Back in New Hampshire, Winant's frustrations grew. He hoped to become secretary-general of the new United Nations organization, but such an offer never materialized.
After three decades of public life, he had to accommodate himself to the quieter pace of a private citizen. He was in debt, under pressure to complete a series of books on his experiences, estranged from his socially ambitious wife, and distraught over his affair with Sarah Chuchill who had declined his marriage proposal. Despite his many public achievements, a lifetime of care for others, and his great capacities for public service, Winant, as James O. Freedman observed “held no protection against the melancholia and hopelessness that ultimately overwhelmed him.”
On November 3, 1947, the very day that his only book, Letter from Grosvenor Square, was published, he committed suicide at his home in Concord. His publisher had rushed a copy of the book to him, but he never saw it.
Winant was buried at Blossom Hill cemetery in Concord; his wish to be buried in the St Paul's School's consecrated cemetery refused by the Episcopalian rector on the grounds that suicide was a sin. However, in the more secular culture of 1968, his casket was exhumed and reinterred at St Paul's. His epitaph was one of his most famous quotes from a 1946 speech:
“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 also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere. Forever moving forward, always remembering that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts and that where there is no vision the people perish. That hope and faith count and that without charity, there can be nothing good. That having dared to live dangerously, and in believing in the inherent goodness of man, we can stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence.”
And herein lies the irony of navigating the chaos. Winant was a man of extraordinary achievement. His career from high school teacher, to military hero, to Governor, and then Ambassador was remarkable. As one observer noted “by drawing upon an elevated spirit and an unswerving idealism, this quiet man from a small state contributed greatly to the nation's coral reef of character.”
As with every single person mentioned in the Navigate the Chaos series, it is essential to remember their humanity. Winant figured out how to Navigate the Chaos of his professional life up until1946. With a broken heart, no clear next step, and a sense of despair, Winant was unable to, in his own words “stride forward into the unknown with confidence.”
My wish is that you never stop striding forward in the unknown with confidence. Every day counts. Every day offers a chance to move forward. Every day, no matter how stormy the weather, how dark the night, or how shattered the heart, every day provides an opportunity to stride forward into the unknown with confidence.
How often do you stride forward into the unknown with confidence?