University of Rochester Library Bulletin: A Churchill Episode

Volume XX · Spring 1965 · Number 3
A Churchill Episode
(Listen to Churchill's 1941 transatlantic Commencement acceptance speech.)

The recent death of Sir Winston Churchill brought forth a series of reminiscences and anecdotes from all his friends and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. To Rochesterians, and particularly to those of us who have been at the University of Rochester for a number of years, it recalled the occasion of the Commencement of June, 1941, when Mr. Churchill was awarded an honorary degree by the University and thus became an honorary alumnus. The episode received much publicity at the time, but the war and its aftermath did much to obscure it. It was the first time a degree had been bestowed upon Mr. Churchill by an American university, and the manner by which it was conveyed made front-page news.

The event touched off a controversy over the location of the birthplace of Jennie Jerome, Mr. Churchill's mother, which led to furious investigation of the claims of the two rival cities, Rochester and Brooklyn. It was a source of some embarrassment to University officials to discover that what had long been a tradition in Rochester was not based on fact. It remains true, however, that Leonard Jerome, Mr. Churchill's American grandfather, was a resident of Rochester for a number of years, that he published a newspaper here, and that his roots were in western New York.

In the University archives there is a small collection of material which tells the story of the awarding of Mr. Churchill's degree, from the inception of the idea in January, 1941, to its culmination on June 16, and the acknowledgements which followed in the fall when the insignia were finally placed in Mr. Churchill's hands. It includes a group of delightful letters, and a recording of his voice which is remarkably clear and moving, as those of us who have recently heard it can testify.

It is difficult for most of us to realize how much was involved in the planning, negotiating, and preparation for the ceremony, and how many University officials, diplomats, radio personnel, and journalists cooperated in making the event a success. President Valentine first conceived the idea of conferring an honorary degree on Britain's prime minister in January, 1941, and although at first it seemed to be no more than a pleasant dream, he received such enthusiastic encouragement from all sides that he began at once to lay the plans for the event. Accordingly, he prepared a letter to Prime Minister Churchill in January which read in part as follows:

Acting for the Board of Trustees of this University, I convey to you a very cordial invitation to receive from this University the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, in absentia, on the Annual Commencement Day, June 16, 1941, provided that you are willing at that time to accept that degree by a verbal response via short wave radio, arrangements for which will be made by this University.

The admiration we feel for your magnificent leadership of a sister democracy makes us proud to offer you the highest honor at the disposal of this University, and to provide in this unprecedented manner for the conferring of the degree. In thus conveying to you, and indeed to the British people our profound sympathy for the mutual ideals you so superbly support, we know that your verbal response in acceptance of the degree will be heard by air not only in this city but, by national broadcast, by millions of Americans.

It is our hope that this invitation will attract you because of your connection with Rochester through your family and your previous visits here, because of the standing of this University which, although small, is highly regarded, and because acceptance of the degree would give you an unsolicited opportunity to address the American public from (as it were) a university platform.

The letter was prepared to be delivered to the Prime Minister by Frederick L. Hovde, Assistant to President Valentine, who left in February to serve in London as head of the London Mission of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Protocol demanded certain niceties which caused a delay of some weeks, but eventually all the difficulties were overcome, the stage was set, and the long-awaited day arrived.

Through the combined efforts of the National Broadcasting Company and the British Broadcasting Company, Dr. Valentine's citation was picked up by a Rochester station, WHAM, transmitted to New York by telephone, thence to London by short wave. There it was picked up and re-broadcast on standard wave lengths for the benefit of Mr. Churchill and the British public. Immediately thereafter, (11:45 A. M. eastern standard and 5:45 P. M. London time), Mr. Churchill's voice was broadcast live from No. 10 Downing Street in an address shrewdly directed at his American audience, and delivered with the ringing phrases and the eloquence for which he has become famous. Technically, it was a remarkably successful occasion; there was little static, and there was no "tea-time bombing" of London. It was a happy occasion too for the University and for Rochesterians to have had the honor of this close association with Britain's war-time leader.

The details of the occasion were widely covered by the press and by articles in the Rochester Review issued at the time. Little was said, however, of the events as they transpired on the other side of the Atlantic. Mr. Frederick Hovde, who had supervised all the necessary arrangements in London, sent to Dr. Valentine an account of what transpired at No. 10 Downing Street on that eventful day, and included his own observations of the morale of war-torn Britain made after five months' residence in London. Now the president of Purdue University and far removed from the situations he described, Mr. Hovde has consented that we reprint the following portions of his letter to Dr. Valentine:

June 28th [1941]

Dear Alan,

With greetings and my very best regards to you. . . and to all my friends at 15 Prince. I enclose an exact copy of the PMs address in the same format which he used before the microphone. I thought you. . . would like to have this unusual document for our library and also to see the method by which the PM obtains the psalm like quality of his speeches. . . .

Everywhere here there was the greatest enthusiasm for his speech- many people saying it was the best he ever made.

It was a real thrill for me to be at No. 10 Downing Street that afternoon. I met the doughty old warrior, who looked marvelously fit, and accepted his thanks to you and the Board for his degree. We couldn't chat because he had to return to a cabinet meeting out of which he had been called to speak.

We had all the breaks on transmission and reception-it was literally perfect which only occurs one time in ten. Your voice came through perfectly as well and I must confess a touch of nostalgia as I thought of home and all the Rochester gang on the Eastman platform. . . .

My work here is fascinating and thrilling-the days are filled with a succession of "behind the scene" problems of great importance to our national defense from any point of view. I shall always be grateful to you and the Board and Tommy for your help in making this job possible for me.

When one is on the inside of a great national effort you hear many things which make you heartsick but fortunately an equal number of things which buoy one's spirit. . .

The past month has been very quiet as far as blitz's are concerned and the Russian venture probably means the summer will be free of attack at least on a major scale. I have the healthiest respect for H.E. bombs and the fewer raids I go through the better. There's no fear or cowardice here in any section of the people even in circumstances where you can't fight back and simply have to take it. . . .

The war has made England more democratic but the old customs, amenities and rules still obtain-indeed even a war or its aftermath will not change these people quickly. Their social system is too ingrained and old to react quickly to forces of war.

Even the Crete fiasco didn't shake the gov't here-Churchill remains in complete confidence by his masterly speeches in the Commons. However, they still "ask questions in the House" and the various ministers are hard put to answer. . . .

When the topic of "education after the war" is opened it's always good for a long argument. But no one has a clear idea what changes should be made. The economic problem facing the Public Schools will force some changes but I fear there will be no fundamental change in the objectives of British education along general democratic lines. As you know they distrust our system and think it wasteful but I am convinced that our system proves its worth in times of national crisis when the need for trained people (at any level) becomes acute.

All the scientific students are being kept on at the Universities but with shorter and more intensified courses. You should plug for that and perhaps use it this summer at the U of R with its excellent science departments. .

Yours ever,


On the stage of the Eastman Theater on that morning of June 16th, Noel Hall, British minister to Washington, accepted the traditional insignia of the degree: the diploma and the yellow-lined hood. These were delivered by him to Mr. Churchill some months later in London, and he in return addressed a most gracious and highly prized letter of thanks to President Valentine, and through him to the University. This, too, forms part of the collection.

Because both the citation read by President Valentine and the address read by Sir Winston Churchill have a timeless quality, it seems appropriate to republish them here. For those who wish to study it, there is the reading copy of Churchill's address, spaced and phrased to give the maximum rhetorical effect. For those who wish to hear it, it would be a pleasure to play again the recording of the two speeches as they were being transmitted across the Atlantic.


CITATION by President Alan Valentine in conferring the degree Doctor of Laws upon Winston Churchill

WINSTON CHURCHILL: From our cities, hills and plains, sprawling between two oceans; from this new nation, conceived in liberty, our hearts speak out to England. Mine-laden seas cannot divide us from that ancient stronghold of free men, nor bombs drown out their steady voices. England and America-our common cause is freedom. You lead that cause in England, resisting infection and the hand of war. Your skies are darkened while ours are safe and clear; your coasts beleaguered while our long shores lie open in the sun.

No need for us to offer comfort, for your bluff words cheer England and cheer us. No need to do you honor, for even time hastens to write high your name. No need to cry "courage" to the sons of England. When Marlborough goes off to war, no one knows when he will come back, but we know he will not give up. Come the three-quarters of the world in arms, and England shall shock them.

Rochester is an English name and the birthplace of your mother. From England we of Rochester learned the democracy of truth. To England go our scientists and our weapons to help your democracy and ours. And we who remain here-we must dedicate ourselves to the great task that this government by the people shall not perish from the earth.

WINSTON CHURCHILL, no longer historian and statesman, but symbol of Britain aroused-stout in heart, direct in speech, cheerful in reverses, calm in confusion-America admires you. No turn of fortune can make us forget.

To few men has so much been given; of no man has more been asked. Your countrymen have placed in your hands the fate of England at war; your fellowmen will turn to you to help create a world of peace. Can you and Britain, can we in America, acquire the greatness of heart, the vision, the magnanimity for that? Lead Britain to that end, and generations the world over will rise to bless you. May peace with freedom be your crowning work.

By virtue of the authority vested in me by the board of trustees of this university, I confer upon you, the spokesman of liberty and justice in the Old World, the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, and with it the hopes of free men and women across this continent.


ADDRESS by Winston Churchill in accepting the degree Doctor of Laws from The University of Rochester

I am grateful, President Valentine, for the honour which you have conferred upon me in making me a doctor of laws of Rochester University in the state of New York. I am extremely complimented by the expressions of praise and commendation in which you have addressed me, not because I am or ever can be worthy of them, but because they are an expression of American confidence, and may I say, affection, which I shall ever strive to deserve.

But what touches me most in this ceremony is that sense of kinship and of unity which I feel exists between us this afternoon.

As I speak from Downing Street to Rochester University and through you to the people of the United States, I almost feel I have the right to do so because my mother, as you have stated, was born in your city, and here my grandfather, Leonard Jerome, lived for so many years, conducting as a prominent and rising citizen a newspaper with the excellent eighteenth century title of "The Plain Dealer."

The great Burke has truly said, "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors," and I feel it most agreeable to recall to you that the Jeromes were rooted for many generations in American soil, and fought in Washington's armies for the independence of the American colonies and the foundation of the United States. I expect I was on both sides then. And I must say I feel on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean now.

At intervals during the last forty years I have addressed scores of great American audiences in almost every part of the Union. I have learnt to admire the courtesy of these audiences, their love of free speech, their sense of fair play, their sovereign sense of humour, never minding the joke that is turned against themselves, their earnest, voracious desire to come to the root of the matter and to be well and truly informed on Old World affairs.

And now in this time of world storm when I have been called upon by king and parliament and with the support of all parties in the state and the good will of the people to bear the chief responsibility in Great Britain, and when I have had the supreme honour of speaking for the British nation in its most deadly danger and in its finest hour, it has given me comfort and inspiration to feel that I think as you do, that our hands are joined across the oceans, and that our pulses throb and beat as one. Indeed, I will make so bold as to say that here, at least, in my mother's birth city of Rochester, I hold a latchkey to American hearts.

Strong tides of emotion, fierce surges of passion, sweep the broad expanses of the Union in this year of fate. In that prodigious travail there are many elemental forces, there is much heart-searching and self-questioning, some pangs, some sorrow, some conflict of voices, but no fear. The world is witnessing the birth throes of a sublime resolve.

I shall presume to confess to you that I have no doubts what that resolve will be. The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, stirring all men's souls, drawing them from their firesides, casting aside comfort, amusement, wealth, and the pursuit of happiness in response to impulses at once awestriking and irresistible, then it is that we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.

A wonderful story is unfolding before our eyes. How it will end, we are not allowed to know. But on both sides of the Atlantic we all feel, I repeat all, that we are part of it, that our future and that of many generations is at stake. We are sure that the character of human society will be shaped by the resolves we take and the deeds we do.

We need not bewail the fact that we have been called upon to face such solemn responsibilities. We may be proud, and even rejoice amid our tribulations, that we have been born at this cardinal time for so great an age and so splendid an opportunity of service here below.

Wickedness, enormous, panoplied, embattled, seemingly triumphant, casts its shadow over Europe and Asia. Laws, customs, traditions are broken up. Justice is thrown from her seat. The rights of the weak are trampled down. The grand freedoms of which the President of the United States has spoken so movingly are spurned and chained. The whole stature of man, his genius, his initiative, and his nobility, is ground down under systems of mechanical barbarism and of organized and scheduled terror.

For more than a year we British have stood alone, uplifted by your sympathy and respect, and sustained by our own unconquerable will power and by the increasing growth and hopes of your massive aid. In these British islands that look so small upon the map we stand faithful guardians of the rights and dearest hopes of a dozen states and nations now gripped and tormented in a base and cruel servitude.

Whatever happens we shall endure to the end.

But what is the explanation of the enslavement of Europe by the German Nazi regime? How did they do it? It is but a few years ago since one united gesture by the peoples, great and small, who now lie broken in the dust, would have warded off from mankind the fearful ordeal it has had to undergo. But there was no unity. There was no vision. The nations were pulled down one by one while the others gaped and chattered. One by one, each in his turn, they let themselves be caught. One after another they were felled by brutal violence or poisoned from within by subtle intrigue.

And now the old lion with her lion cubs at her side stands alone against hunters who are armed with deadly weapons and impelled by desperate and destructive rage. Is the tragedy to repeat itself once more? Ah no! This is not the end of the tale.

The stars in their courses proclaim the deliverance of mankind. Not so easily shall the onward progress of the peoples be barred. Not so easily shall the lights of freedom die. But time is short. Every month that passes adds to the length and to the perils of the journey that will have to be made.

United we stand. Divided we fall. Divided, the dark ages return. United, we can save and guide the world.