"The Heroism of Jack Williams, II '19"

Chapel talk given by Head of School Mason Lecky on Monday, September 17, 2018. 
 
Good morning.
 
I would like to begin by offering thanks to our School archivist, Alice Flowers, as well as alumni Jack McElroy, Class of 1949, and Jack Williams, Class of 1959, who is here with us this morning, for helping me prepare these remarks.
 
I would like to speak with you today about the concept of heroism, and within that concept, the notion of sacrifice, specifically self-sacrifice.
 
In order to provide real-life context to the concepts of heroism and self-sacrifice, I am going to tell you about one of St. Christopher’s most distinguished and honorable alumni.
 
His name is John Langbourne Williams II. His friends called him Jack. Jack is an alumnus of St. Christopher’s. Tragically, he is not a graduate of St. Christopher’s. He attended our school for five years, from 1913 to 1918, but he did not graduate from our school, as he should have, in June of 1919. As a result, Jack is an alumnus, but not a graduate.
 
Each of you is destined to be an alumnus of St. Christopher’s. I hope and pray that each of you will also be a graduate.
 
Here is a photo of Jack Williams, taken 100 years ago, in 1918. Looking at this photo, you may conclude that Jack was a soldier, and that it was soldiering that ultimately prevented him from graduating with his classmates in 1919. That is not the case, though we may well think of Jack as a solider, perhaps fittingly as a Christian soldier, referencing that well-loved hymn we just sang together. That same hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” interestingly, was the opening hymn of the 1918 commencement program at our school, the final commencement program that Jack would know.
 
In order to understand Jack’s story, including his heroism and his sacrifice, we must first understand the context of Jack’s world, both at home in Richmond and across the globe, precisely one century ago.
 
If you have studied history up to and through the first quarter of the 20th Century, then you know that the period precisely one century ago was a remarkable moment in world history.

In 1918, the most devastating global conflict then known to mankind, what was then called the Great War and is now referred to as World War I, had been raging throughout much of Europe for four years. By 1918 that conflicted involved well over a dozen countries, including the United States and nearly all of Europe. This is a photo of British soldiers engaged in the infamous trench warfare on the French frontlines in 1917.
 
At the exact same time as this worldwide conflict there occurred the most devastatingly lethal pandemic ever known to mankind, more deadly even than the Bubonic Plague of the 14th Century.
 
It came to be known as the Spanish Flu, something of a misnomer as we now know that the virus likely did not originate in Spain. One theory contends that the flu may have originated at an army hospital in Kansas, shown here in 1918. Whatever we choose to call it and whatever its precise origin, the Influenza outbreak of 1918 infected 1/3 of the world’s population and killed more than 50 million people, more than double the number of deaths caused by the Great War.
 
Now, I am going to pause here to tell you that before I became head of a school in New Orleans and before I came to St. Christopher’s, I was a history teacher in Washington, DC. I love history and the stories of people and events that helped to shape our present reality. That said, I am not a professional historian, but very much an amateur. Fortunately for all of us, in just over one month, we will be visited by a professional historian, Dr. Nelson Lankford, formerly of the Virginia Historical Society and the author of several historical works of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
 
Dr. Lankford will join us through the Williams-McElroy speakers fund, to help us make sense of this remarkable confluence of world events one century ago. So my hope this morning is simply to tell you a bit more about Jack Williams, the honorable alumnus of St. Christopher’s.
 
Here is Jack again, at 15 years old. Jack is very likely a junior in this photo, enrolled in the Chamberlayne School for boys, named after our school founder Dr. Churchill Gibson Chamberlayne. St. Christopher’s was known as the Chamberlayne School from its founding in 1911 until 1920, when we became part of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, one of six Episcopal Church Schools in the commonwealth. At that time Dr. Chamberlayne and others decided to name our school after Christopher, the Christian martyr and bearer of the Christ child.
 
You may notice that Jack’s attire, which is a military uniform, is quite different from how St. Christopher’s boys dress one century later. Jack would not have dressed in this manner every school day, but he and nearly every boy of proper age at the Chamberlayne School in 1918 would have been part of the Chamberlayne Cadet Corps, a youth military training group consisting of both students and faculty who routinely drilled and prepared for military exercises. I have a photo of the Chamberlayne Cadet Corps here taken in February of 1918. This building that you see here, then a brand-new gymnasium and now an aged Chapel, is where you are sitting right now.
 
In 1918, though the Allied forces were making gains against the Central Powers, the outcome of the Great War was far from certain, and these young men—and their faculty—needed to be prepared to enter the service in the very near future.
 
Here is a photo of the Chamberlayne Cadet Corps, marching down Franklin Street in a military parade in March of 1918. The leader of this parade, out in front, is our Jack Williams, the captain of the Chamberlayne Corps. In addition to this honor, Jack was president of the Jackson Literary Society, a member of the Honor Committee and an honors-level student.
 
In June of 1918, during the School’s Commencement exercises of his junior year, Jack was awarded the Bryan Prize for Leadership, honoring his high character and scholarship. In fact, Jack was the very first recipient of this award, which, for just over a century now, has been considered the highest form of recognition in our Upper School. Our last three Bryan Prize winners have been Will Brown, Jackson Barkstrom, and Will Forrest.
 
Courtesy of the St. Christopher’s Archives, here is Jack’s Bryan Prize from 1918, here is his Chamberlayne Cadet Corps cap, and here is his sword, both seen in this photo.

In addition to being a fine scholar, a student-athlete, and a leader in the Cadet Corps, Jack was active in his Boy Scout troop, often volunteering for various service causes along with his fellow scouts.
 
By the fall of 1918, even as the Great War was coming to a close, the Influenza epidemic was raging around the world. In Richmond alone, nearly 1,000 people died from the flu, with thousands more infected.
 
On Saturday, October 5, 1918, the Chamberlayne School joined all day schools in the city of Richmond in closing due to the epidemic; the Chamberlayne School remained open for its boarding students, but they were quarantined and not allowed to leave the campus. The day school would remain closed for nearly six weeks, until the armistice that ended World War One went into effect on November 11, 1918.
 
From St. Christopher’s alumnus Mr. McElroy, who is Jack’s nephew and who will be here with us for Dr. Lankford’s talk next month, we have this letter that Jack penned to a girlfriend who was then a student at Oldfields boarding school in Baltimore.
 
The letter was written in early October 1918, likely just after the Chamberlayne School had been closed because of the flu. It’s a touching letter, four pages written in cursive, by a 15-year-old boy. Here is an excerpt—
 
“Mother and Father have just finished blowing me up for working all day yesterday in a big school which the city has turned into an influenza hospital. Hereafter I don’t crave stretcher bearing. You see some awfully sad cases, one I noticed especially. There was a poor little orphan boy, three years old, not a friend in the world, brought to the hospital by a man who left the poor little boy alone with strange doctors and nurses. His name was ‘Jack,’ that was all, and he had light hair and blue eyes. Probably his name attracted me, but I think anybody would have been touched, regardless of names, had they seen this poor little boy, stricken with a bad case of pneumonia, gazing with tearful eyes upon a crowd of bemasked doctors and nurses. Spanish ‘flu’ is no respecter of persons and people of all races, nationalities, and walks of life. My ambulance hauled nine people from one family.”
 
You see, starting that fall of 1918, at age 15, Jack had been—against his parents’ wishes—volunteering with his Boy Scout troop, transporting sick flu patients from their homes to John Marshall High School, which had been converted into an emergency hospital for the city. That was the “big school” that Jack referenced in his letter.
 
Tragically, not too long after Jack wrote this very letter, and very likely after additional acts of volunteerism transporting sick patients, Jack himself contracted the virus, on or around October 11, 1918. Just five days later, at 3 p.m. on October 16, 1918, just under one century ago, John Langbourne Williams II died at his parents’ home on West Franklin Street.
 
The Chamberlayne School opened in full several weeks later, on November 11, but there was a pall of sadness cloaking the School.
 
Dr. Chamberlayne, in a column that he wrote for the October 25, 1918 Pine Needle, a publication titled the “Quarantine Edition” and pictured here, captured the essence of Jack and the effect of his death with eloquence.
 
Dr. Chamberlayne wrote, “In the death of Jack Williams the School has suffered an incalculable loss…Before Jack Williams, endowed with gifts of no ordinary kind there stretched apparently a future in this world filled with almost limitless possibilities. But it was no so ordered in the providence of God. The end came, an end sudden and tragic, but one in perfect keeping with his life. On the outbreak of the present epidemic he volunteered, and was accepted, for work among the stricken. His service though short was effective—‘he saved others,’ but like the Master in whose steps he followed with unquestioning faith, himself he did not save. A short illness—only five days—and then through peaceful sleep he entered into the presence of his Maker.”
 
In the final paragraph of that tribute, Dr. Chamblerayne concluded, “Separated from us for a little while he may be, but gone from us he can never be. Living now in the presence of his Lord and King, he is also living and will live in our memories; and though dead he yet speaks, and will continue throughout our lives to speak, inspiring tones to us all.”
 
“And though dead he yet speaks…”
 
Dr. Chamberlayne himself continued to serve this school and the boys of St. Christopher’s until his own death 21 years later in 1939. The next time you enter the front entrance of Chamberlayne Hall and you walk up the steps to the main corridor, look up, above the doorway, and you will see this plaque in memory of Dr. Chamberlayne. At the bottom, you will notice the line, “He, being dead, yet speaketh.”
 
What do we make of all this? Of war and flu and death and service and of the early years of our school? It is hard for me to say and perhaps not for me to say. I know that Jack Williams’ death in 1918 was and is a tragedy. I know that he defied his parents’ wishes and caused unspeakable grief for them and others in Richmond. Tragically, Jack’s parents, Edmund Randolph Williams and Maude Stokes Williams, lost their first son, Edmund, in 1902, a year before Jack was born.
 
I also know that Jack Williams is a hero and should be regarded as such, an example for all of us of noble living, of self-sacrifice, and of an abiding love for mankind.
 
If you have the opportunity, I encourage all of you to visit Jack’s gravesite. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery, next to his parents. If you look closely at the front of Jack’s Celtic cross marking his grave, at the very bottom, you will find a passage from the Gospel of John, read by Walker this morning:
 
 
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
 
Amen.
 
Will you please open your Worship Books to page 2. and join me in reading the School Prayer?
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