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April 10, 2002:

A Tribute to Dean Ernest Gordon

By Nicholas Allard '74

From a letter Allard wrote for the Class of 1974 letter for The American Oxonian

"Read any good obituaries lately?," asked the warden, Sir Edgar Williams. "I do so much look forward to a good one, something to savor through the whole day," he added, or said something like that. We had just concluded our awkward, obligatory talk about becoming a married Rhodes Scholar. Sir Edgar may have been trying, in his way, to lighten the mood. In those good old days (spring 1975) we were not permitted to be married during our first year at Oxford, and even after completing the first year needed the Warden's permission before tying the knot. He had remained seated, waiting for me as I approached down a long dark hall in Rhodes House, watching impassively as I walked. I could not shake away an image of Dorothy and her friends petitioning the Wizard of Oz. Deep in a big chair, swirling something brown in a tall glass, Sir Edgar began our appointment with "So, what do you want?" He abruptly ended our short, pointed discussion about love, marriage, and money with, "Well, don't be an embarrassment to the Trust."* I chose to interpret his exhortation as a ringing endorsement of marrying Marla, who he knew quite well. While I am not sure I understood or observed Sir Edgar's prenuptial admonition, ever since that meeting I have been reading obituaries closely and relishing the fascinating stories they often contain. One of my favorites is the obit of Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., who was the lead obituary writer for the New York Times. Thomas transformed one of the most neglected forms of journalism, and was particularly adept at chronicling unsung lives, such as the clothier who named the "zoot suit," the "Calvin Klein" of outer space who designed space suits for NASA, and Rose Hamburger, the 105-year-old racing handicapper. Thomas was also fond of writing about people who became legendary as a result of a single exploit, like Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, or Johnny Sylvester, the bed-ridden boy who inspired Babe Ruth to hit a home run for him (the Babe hit three that day, game four of the 1926 World Series).

Emissaries from the hereafter who write obituaries are usually strangers to their subject who are composing the first draft of history; perhaps this is what intrigued Sir Edgar. And there is no shortage of richly textured material. Consider just a few of the new obituaries since our last class letter: The British Lord who championed eccentric causes; the honorary keeper of Harvard University's 70 antique clocks who maintained, falsely, until the day he died at 91, that he was 110; the Scottish woman who declined receiving an award from the Queen for her world famous mastery of fish fly tying, because she had no one to care for her dog that day; the leading allied fighter ace in World War II who initially was rejected from flight school; the heroic allied bomber who completed scores of missions and returned to base despite, on several occasions, having major portions of his aircraft shot off — nose, wing, tail, landing gear, windshield, and though repeatedly receiving serious wounds himself; Canada's most decorated WWII hero who returned to the Dutch town of Woendrecht three decades after he helped liberate it, in order to replace the lock and oak door to the City Hall, which he shot off in a rush to set up headquarters during a battle; and the British code master who helped run major sabotage operations against Nazi Germany and whose family bookstore was the subject of the play and movie, "84, Charing Cross Road."

Indeed, you may have noticed recently that there have been a very large number of obituaries of World War II veterans. American veterans of that war are now dying at the rate of some 1,500 per day. From this, "the greatest generation," come truly remarkable stories of heroism, fortitude, humor, and spirituality. Major Charity Adams Early commanded the first all black Women's Army Corps unit to serve overseas during World War II. She did so, according to the British press at the time, with dignity, reserve, and strength. When a general inspecting her battalion learned that some of Major Early's WACs were sleeping, after working two straight days, he told Major Early that he would "send a white first lieutenant down to run the unit." The Major replied, "over my dead body." The general later told Major Early that he respected her. John Worsley, a royal navy midshipman, became a wartime artist. While a P.O.W., Worsley created a papier-m‚chÈ dummy P.O.W. named Albert designed to fool the German guards into believing that an escapee was still in camp. Col. Todd Sweeney commanded the platoon of glider-borne infantrymen who captured two vital bridges in the early hours of D-Day. Among many exploits, after falling into a ditch and drenching himself from head to foot, Sweeney rescued a seriously wounded man from an exposed position in full view of the Germans under heavy machine gun fire. Lt. Col. Jimmy Yule operated a clandestine radio from the supposedly escape-proof Colditz prison. He bamboozled his German captors, organizing a P.O.W. musical group that helped to orchestrate 160 escapes. Yule never tried to escape himself because it was felt that his own talents were too valuable for the other prisoners to justify his leaving. Also at Colditz, Jack Best hatched the audacious plan to escape from the huge mountaintop Saxon castle by building a glider — 32 foot wingspan and all — under the nose of his German guards and then flying from the castle roof to safety. The allies liberated Colditz shortly before Yule and his men were planning to take off in the homemade aircraft. Harold Russell, an army parachute and demolitions instructor, had both hands blown off when, in his words, he "had a fight with TNT and lost." Russell won two Academy Awards for his riveting portrayal of a double amputee in "The Best Years of Our Lives." A national role model for the disabled, he taught himself to do everything with his prosthetic metal claws except "pick up a check."

Few, if any stories from the WWII era surpass the experiences of our friend, Ernest Gordon, the dean of the Princeton Chapel, whose obituary I read as I prepared this letter. Dean Gordon, though a Presbyterian, officiated at our Catholic-Jewish wedding. The priest-rabbi clergy tag team options in central New Jersey were not appealing to us, and other obvious neutral parties such as Yasser Arafat, were not available. Dean Gordon was a captain and company commander in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He left Scotland, not a particularly devout or observant man, to fight the Japanese in Malaya, where he was wounded, and later Singapore. When Singapore fell he escaped with his unit and lived eight weeks at sea in a small creaky sloop, barely surviving until overtaken and captured by a Japanese warship. He spent the rest of the war in the P.O.W. camp along the Kwai Valley that provided slave labor to build a military railroad through what was then Burma and Siam. At one point, when Gordon was critically ill with diphtheria, malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and worms, he was moved to the camp morgue, which was drier and cleaner than the camp hospital, and after all, he was expected to die. He did not. Dean Gordon's book, "Through the Valley of the Kwai," about squalor, cruelty, and death in his P.O.W. camp, and how he overcame the ordeal, forgave his captors and dedicated his life to God, will be re-released later this year by Harper Collins, and has been turned into a new movie: "To End All Wars."

Thirty years after the war and 27 years ago, I stood with Dean Gordon before the apse in the transept of Princeton's beautiful chapel. He was a restored, robust 6-feet 3-inches, with flowing white hair and a musical, booming Scottish burr. While we waited for my bride to arrive and the ceremony to begin, he noticed my nervousness, and probably was aghast that my best man was making a serious effort to convince me to make a run for the Jersey Shore. So Dean Gordon led us into his hideaway study through a panel door between the choir seats near the altar. There he pointed to a large rusty railroad spike in a glass case on his desk. He told us about laying the Japanese railroad and building the bridge over the river Kwai, constructed at a cost of one man dying for every three feet of track laid. "That, boyo, was tough. Relatively speaking, you have nothing to worry about." Hmmm. Comparing married life with a P.O.W.'s experience at the hands of sadistic captors was, at the time, not particularly settling. But he was right, of course.

Years later I learned that the Trustees and Warden were primarily concerned about whether married scholars could afford to live on the same standard stipend dispensed to single scholars and avoid financial embarrassment. I certainly did not comprehend the nature of this concern during our 1975 interview. But, then, I have never been very good at British English. Recently a friend showed me a invitation oddly sent from "the Duke of Edinburgh's Award" to a reception and dinner "in the presence of His Royal Highness The Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh." My friend asked for an explanation of the meaning of the stilted usage. I kept thinking of Prince Phillip sitting behind a one-way mirror watching the assembled guests eat, while seated next to a trophy dressed in a d.j. smoking a cigar. So I suggested to my friend that he better ask someone else.

Reprinted with permission.