Recently I told two of my granddaughters, ages 13 and 11, that Winston Churchill was perhaps the most important man in the history of the world we know today. One could argue pro and con about his decisions in later years of World War II, but in 1940 and 1941 Britain stood alone against Hitler and the Nazis, who were a threat to just about everything we take for granted today. And the person who held Britain together, primarily by his inspirational speeches, was the British prime minister. Just one paragraph, the peroration from his speech of June 18, 1940, tells nearly the whole story:
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
And it was.
Juxtaposed to my brief history lesson over Memorial Day weekend was a routine occurrence, the reading of an obituary in the Camden, Maine, newspaper, The Camden Herald. (I have a home in Camden and like to keep up with the local happenings.)
It recorded the death at age 93 of one Priscilla Lewis O’Keefe in Vinalhaven, Maine, an island right off the coast. She died in the home she had occupied for 44 years. Ms. O’Keefe graduated from Wellesley College in 1941 and enlisted in the Marines. She went to Officer Candidate School at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and later served out the war at a nearby air station.
The author of the obituary, perhaps a family member, wrote, “The patriotic experience of serving her country during World War II as a Marine Corps officer was unforgettable and a source of pride and strength throughout her life.”
It would appear that Ms. O’Keefe was never in danger, as so many were in that terrible war, but she did her part. She was honored in 1997 at the dedication of the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
I had never heard of Ms. O’Keefe until reading The Camden Herald last week, but her life story made an impression. World War II veterans are said to be dying at the rate of more than 600 a month now, though still more than one million survive. It is estimated that by 2036, they will all be gone.
I wish my granddaughters, who have spent time within sight of Vinalhaven Island, could have met Ms. O’Keefe. She, of course, would have known about Churchill and Britain’s finest hour. She could have told the story far better than I. Which leaves one to hope the story is still being well told in 2037.
Matt Storin, a former editor of The Boston Globe and former associate vice president for news and information at Notre Dame, is the University’s chief communications executive.