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By Troy Treasure
Jerri Hewitt of Shelbyville remembers March 5, 1946.
As a 13-year-old resident of Fulton, what Jerri could not know was her future in-laws were in town that day.
Seventy-five years ago this week, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered what would become known as the Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College.
Westminster’s fieldhouse could accommodate 2,600 to 2,800 people, depending on reports, and 20,000 people requested invitations to the event.
Mr. and Mrs. W.T. Dimmitt and Mr. and Mrs. W.C. Hewitt of Shelbyville were among those who attended.
“Walt Dimmitt was quite a character,” Jerri Hewitt’s future husband, Rogers, said Friday of the local jeweler. “He would take his teeth out to get a laugh.”
As much of a historic figure Churchill was and is; Missouri’s own President Harry Truman was the bigger draw locally.
After arriving by train from Washington D.C., Churchill and Truman took part in a Fulton parade to the college. The town displayed both American and British flags.
“I remember the people, the crowds. We were in the midst of all of it,” Jerri said last week.
“They allowed the crowd pretty close to the car,” she added. “It was moving very slowly.”
Jerri’s father, Ward Kennett, was enthusiastic about the president and former prime minister’s appearance.
“He was yelling, ‘Hey, Harry! Hey, Harry!’ Harry waved back,” she said. “My dad might have thought he was waving to him personally, but he was probably waving to everyone.”
Churchill was invited to speak at Westminster by Dr. Franc McCluer, the college’s president. The invitation made its way to Truman’s desk en route to the United Kingdom.
“This is a wonderful school in my home state,” Truman hand-wrote on McCluer’s letter. “Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards.”
Churchill’s speech itself is legendary for his statement regarding the Soviet Union printed in the March 6, 1946 edition of the Herald:
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended upon the (European) continent.”
Churchill went on to say, “Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.
“All are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence,” Churchill continued, “but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
The opinion was controversial. Many Americans favored appeasement with its World War II ally. However, Soviet leader Josef Stalin had raised the stakes the previous month.
“In a rare public address in Moscow on February 9,” wrote Truman biographer David McCullough, “Stalin declared that communism and capitalism were incompatible and that another war was inevitable.”
According to McCullough, Washington was stunned.
“Even the liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called it the ‘Declaration of World War III,’” he wrote.
Truman later offered to accompany Stalin to the University of Missouri, “So he too might speak his mind, as Churchill had.” Stalin declined.
Truman returned to Westminster in 1964 to turn over the first shovel of dirt for the Winston Churchill National Memorial. In the March 12, 2019 edition of Westeryears: Odis and Truman, 1971 graduate Thomas Dunlap wrote of a special guest.
“He had only a first name and four legs,” Dunlap said. “The SAEs at Westminster, like most campus fraternities, had a House dog.
“He was in current parlance, a rescue. Unlike other fraternity pure-bred mascots, Odis was a ‘Heinz 57’ variety,” Dunlap continued. “He roamed the Westminster campus, proud and perpetually hungry regardless of his regular meals at SAE.
“Odis’s dog years rivaled President Truman’s human years,” he added. “So, it should have not surprised me to find a picture of Odis sitting on the Westminster Hall steps as President Truman happily broke ground for the Memorial.”
Forty-six years after Churchill’s speech and following the end of the Cold War, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke at Westminster. The outdoor gathering drew an estimated crowd of 20,000. The speech was reportedly broadcast live to 132 nations.
On May 6, 1992, Gorbachev conceded his nation had made serious mistakes. However, he also asserted the United States and the United Kingdom were also to blame for the Cold War.
This reporter covered Gorbachev’s visit to Fulton for the CBS television affiliate in Jefferson City.
The lasting memory is of a colleague who failed to ask Gorbachev a question when given the opportunity.
Instead, she asked Gorbachev for his autograph.