Fifty years ago, much of London still lay in rubble from the Blitz of World War II. However, one of the city’s many historic churches, gutted by a bomb in December 1940, had recently been rebuilt, beginning its new life thousands of miles away in Fulton, Mo.
The journey of that church, or more accurately the crumbled remains of that church, to this small Midwestern town is a journey that has since been repeated by some of the world’s most powerful leaders.
This May marks the 50th anniversary of that church opening as the Winston Churchill Memorial in Fulton — now known as the National Churchill Museum. On the weekend of May 3-5, descendants of many of those world leaders will follow their ancestors’ footsteps back to Fulton to commemorate the significance of this little town and its role in world history.
An iron curtain
It’s OK if you scratch your head and wonder why there is a National Churchill Museum in Missouri. That’s a long way from 10 Downing Street.
The prime minister, whose indomitable spirit and eloquent words kept Great Britain strong during its darkest days, became friends with another spirited guy named Harry Truman. Not quite a year after the war ended in Europe, at the behest of his good friend from Missouri, Churchill accepted an invitation to speak at Westminster College in Fulton.
One of two highly rated private colleges in this community of 13,000 residents, Westminster College holds an endowment that regularly brings speakers of “international significance” to campus.
And that’s why on March 5, 1946, not a year after the end of the war in Europe, Winston Churchill came to central Missouri, delivering a speech formally called the “Sinews of Peace.” Today, it is simply known the Iron Curtain Speech.
At the 20th anniversary of that speech, the Westminster faculty, inspired by a magazine article that showed the devastation of historic churches in London, decided to honor the memory of that famous speech by purchasing one of those churches that government leaders determined would not be rebuilt in London.
Designed by Christopher Wren in the 1600s, the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, was where John Milton married at least one of his three wives. It is believed that William Shakespeare worshiped here. And in May 1969, it was dedicated as the Winston Churchill Memorial in Fulton.
Located below the church, the National Churchill Museum first details the lonely, often awkward childhood of young Winston and his failures as a commander in World War I. The museum then delves deep into the issues that would eventually explode into World War II and the unlikely circumstances that brought Churchill to power.
Perhaps the most dramatic arena is the room called “Churchill’s Finest Hour.” Here visitors feel life during the Blitz, the series of bombings throughout England orchestrated by Germany to bring the nation to its knees. The riveting images of fire and devastation and wall-pounding audio, accompanied by the messages of consolation, strength and determination delivered by Churchill via radio to the people of England, transports us to WWII London.
“Finest Hour” includes a film of the same name narrated by Missouri native and renowned journalist Walter Cronkite. In Cronkite’s calm and authoritative manner, we come to further appreciate Churchill’s strengths and the respect given him by the people of England during the war. We are left to ponder why Churchill was defeated in the next election, making him available for a road trip to Missouri.
Over the years, Ronald Reagan stood on these grounds alongside Mikhail Gorbachev. Margaret Thatcher followed Churchill’s footsteps to Fulton, as did Poland’s Lech Walesa. Remember him? John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and, more recently, Bernie Sanders have all spoken in Fulton.
On the weekend of May 3-5, Churchill’s granddaughters Edwina Sandys and Emma Soames and great-grandsons Jack Churchill and Duncan Sandys will join Truman’s grandson Clifton Truman Daniel in Fulton in ceremonies that salute the friendship between the leaders.
It will be a three-day affair with parades, international symposiums, exhibits of World War II-era military equipment and other events that celebrate the unique circumstances that have brought world leaders to this little town in America’s heartland.
And then there will be an art show. Churchill found relaxation in his later years, often painting in the garden of his home in Blenheim, England. About 10 of those paintings will be on display, along with work by Eisenhower, Kennedy and George W. Bush.
Tickets and reservations are required for some events. For more information, go to nationalchurchillmuseum.org or call 1-573-592-5369.
‘Breakthrough’ in the Berlin Wall
At first, the jagged edges of graffiti-plagued concrete seem somewhat out of place in the otherwise pristine surroundings of Westminster College in Fulton. The college’s dramatic architecture, winding drive and well manicured grounds set a stage for something more dignified than pockmarked slabs of concrete.
But upon closer inspection, it works.
The Iron Curtain that Churchill predicted eventually materialized into a 12-foot high, 7½-mile long concrete wall in Berlin in August 1961. When the Berlin Wall was finally destroyed on Nov. 9, 1989, literally torn apart by the hands of those who had been entrapped by their government, artist and sculptor Edwina Sandys quickly laid claim to numerous sections of the wall.
Sandys is the granddaughter of Winston Churchill, who first uttered the words “iron curtain,” a term that came to symbolize the Cold War era.
Her finished piece, titled “Breakthrough,” was dedicated on the Westminster College campus on Nov. 9, 1990, exactly one year after freedom came to the people of East Berlin. The eight sections measure 11 feet high and 4 feet wide and weigh more than two tons. It is the largest contiguous section of the wall outside of Berlin.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a Kansas City-based travel writer.