Wendell L. Willkie
By REV. DR. JOHN SUTHERLAND BONNELL, Rector, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
Delivered at Funeral Service, New York City, October 10, 1944
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, p. 26.
SELDOM have the American people been so shocked and stunned as when tidings flashed across this nation and around the world that Wendell Willkie had died. Men and women discussed the news in hushed tones and with awed voices. In homes of every class and race and creed there was something more than a realization of national deprivation. There was a poignant sense of personal bereavement.
In normal times this country could ill afford to lose a citizen of Mr. Willkie's stature. But his passing now, just as the nations are approaching the crossroads that will determine whether or not the world will enjoy stability and peace—or be torn and tortured by intermittent wars—his death takes on the aspect of tragedy.
This man for whom we perform today these last solemn and tender offices possessed the power of eliciting the loyalty and devotion of men and women. By every qualification of intellect and heart he was a natural leader of men. His tireless energy, his hatred of sham and hypocrisy, his unswerving loyalty to principle, his fearless independence, his contempt for expediency and evasiveness, his genuine humility —these sterling qualities of character drew millions of Americans to his standard.
One of the most pronounced characteristics was his modesty. On his last visit to Canada he was greeted at Toronto's Union Station by a vast throng of admirers. A photographer snapped a flashlight picture as he stepped forth from the station and faced the crowd. One can see the expression of mingled shyness and amazement that thirty thousand Canadians should give to him so warm and tumultuous welcome. He never was quite able to accustom himself to the receipt of honors. What was the secret of this self-effacement?
Years ago when he was at the commencement of his career and successive honors were being paid to him, a moving tribute was read by Mrs. Willkie. "Don't read any more, Billy," he said, calling her by the name he loved. "Don't read any more. My constant prayer is, 'O Lord, keep me humble!' Who will aver that his prayer went unanswered?"
If, as Thoreau says, "Humility, like darkness, reveals the heavenly lights," then the glow of this man's personality will shine across the generations of American life.
"And what shall we say of his inflexible sense of honor? His friends recall how valiantly he resisted the pressure of sectionalism and vested interests. As he traveled across this nation on his Presidential campaign a few years ago he was repeatedly urged to appeal to certain local prejudices. He replied, "You're wasting your time. My principles don't change with geography."
On another occasion he said to some friends, "I have got to live with myself, and what is most important is not that I attain office but that the principles I stand for should gain acceptance."
And what were these? National unity and solidarity and international co-operation for peace and human freedom.
All the tributes we may pay to the memory of this great American will be a mockery and a sham unless we carry ever upward and onward that torch which he has flung to us with falling hand.
Finally we remember today the service he rendered not merely to America, but to all the freedom-loving countries of the world. Wendell Willkie was an internationalist who believed that he could love other nations without sacrificing or hating his own. It would be easy to speak of what he did for China and Russia and Britain. I shall content myself with an incident of personal knowledge.
Shortly after Mr. Willkie returned from Britain in the spring of 1941 I was privileged to fly to that island fortress as an ambassador of good will from a score of American churches. One cold, cheerless night when rain was falling in sheets and London was as black as Erebus, I visited an underground shelter in the third basement of a church. Nine hundred men and women and children were crowded there. No one of them possessed aught save the clothing in which he stood, for they were all victims of the cruel blitz. The minister in charge of the shelter asked me to address the people as they were gathered for evening prayer. I mentioned the name of Mr. Willkie, saying that I had talked with him before leaving New York and that he sent his best wishes to the hard-pressed people of the British Isles. Immediately they broke into an ovation that lasted several minutes.
"Do these people know Mr. Willkie?" I asked.
"Yes," said the minister. "He visited this shelter and addressed them here. Please tell your friends that they will never be able to estimate what that great-hearted, radiant, encouraging American did for British morale in those long dark winter nights when the roar of Nazi bombers was overhead from twilight to dawn."
Wendell Willkie has passed from our sight. Into four years of public life he crowded more activity and achievement than most men attain in a lifetime. No longer will we hear from his lips those characteristic words, "fellow Americans!" but the ideals he espoused will be enshrined in millions of hearts and, please God, will be expressed in America's national life.
One cannot think of him without recalling the words of the poet:
"God give us men. A time like this demands
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands:
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men who the spoils of office cannot buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor—men who will not lie;
Tall men sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty, and in private thinking."
Wendell Willkie, thou valiant heart, hail and farewell!