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The Everyday Life of a Warrior: The Churchill Fellowship

Written by Klara Holscher

I sat in Soren Geiger’s office, surrounded by stacks upon stacks of green-sheafed papers. These were copies of the Churchill documents—documents passed on from Churchill, to his son Randolph, to Martin Gilbert, who went from being a research assistant to the official biographer of Winston Churchill. Sir Martin Gilbert employed a young man by the last name of Arnn. When that young man became Dr. Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Sir Martin was made a chair of the history department at the college. In time, an agreement was formed that if he should fall ill, the college would continue the work of publishing all of Churchill’s documents as companion volumes to the official biography. As Soren, who heads up the “Churchill Project,” explained, this will be “one of the monumental publications of the English language when it is completed.”

In order to accomplish these ends, the college has recently launched the Churchill Fellowship. Funded by generous contributions, this program offers a group of nine graduate and undergraduate students the unique opportunity of transcribing documents, researching, and editing volumes before publication, as well as working on the Churchill blog. Volume 18 of the companion documents was recently released, and Volume 19 is well underway. I asked Colleen Coleman, a junior, about her experience working with this material on a weekly basis. She recalled some of the amusing accounts uncovered in Churchill’s documents. “There was one biologist,” she told me, “who tried to ship a platypus live to Churchill, but it arrived dead. This account was surprising to find among so many war documents.”

The biologist’s failed attempts at expressing his appreciation for Churchill provides not only an amusing anecdote, but a glimpse of Churchill as other than simply a politician or leader in war. “It is moments like this,” Colleen divulged, “that bring this lofty political persona into focus as a more tangible character, more accessible, almost approachable.”

She went on to speak of what drew her to applying for the fellowship: “This work is very meaningful both because it is making Churchill’s life very accessible for scholarship, and also because it is promoting statesmanship by preserving these documents.”

Graduate student Zach Reynolds decided to apply for the fellowship after taking Dr. Arnn’s class on Winston Churchill last year. “I wanted to know more about the man,” he told me. “Statesmanship is looking at men who are widely recognized as having great things and beginning to think about how it was that they thought about things. So if you are getting a statesmanship education, it is not simply studying a whole bunch of political philosophy. One of the critical elements is actually looking at men who were eminently practical men—I think Churchill would be called an eminently practical man—and seeing how they thought, and how they converted those thoughts, those principles, into actions.”

Our conversation continued, meandering from Zach describing how Churchill signed many of his letters to his wife with the drawing of a pig (Clementine jotted a cat on her letters), to the account of how another animal was gifted to him (this time a lion, which Churchill, in his eminent practicality, bequeathed to a zoo), to the work Zach and fellow graduate student Nathan are doing on the Churchill blog. As our time closed, Zach told me, “Churchill wrote about everything and anything. The man was, for one thing, an absolute genius, but for another thing, his mind was just so incredibly active that there was no question that was too small or beneath his consideration.” It is due to this man who put thoughts into actions, and ideas into words, that we have the treasure of his documents within our grasp.

As I thought over the quirks of history that brought those documents within my view, I did wonder if, in all his imagination, Churchill had considered who would be poring over his everyday communications. Did he ever think that, fifty years after his death, a farm girl in the Midwest would be inspecting an appointment entry made by his secretary, which read: “7th of June, 1944, 1:15 PM: Meet with Lord Portal”? Yet Churchill’s quotidian communications swirled around a focal point of global proportions, and his ordinary days were filled with war. The minute details of such a great man’s life are significant indeed, and in his foresight, Churchill kept those piles and piles of documents. He knew we would need them.

Klara Holscher

Klara Holscher, ’16, is majoring in English. She hails from a small farm in rural New York. Writer, farmer, and music-lover, she divides her time between scribbling, chasing cows (when at home), and singing in the Hillsdale Chamber Choir.