Churchill makes the cut

By Bob Gaydos

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America. a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful.”

— Thomas Merton

Yes, I’m back to The List. The 20/20 if you will. Choosing the 20 most influential thinkers of the 20th Century, as laid down in a challenge by a friend who has since failed to participate in the actual choosing and who shall, hence, go nameless until he deigns to join in the process.

Tim and Ernie, though, they’re a different story. Both have taken a sincere interest in the project and both said I should take a look at Thomas Merton. And since I respect both of their opinions, I did.

Quite the man, Merton. I confess that with Merton, as with quite a number of names mentioned in previous columns, my personal data bank did not go much beyond the superficial labels. Catholic. Monk. Pacifist. Author. Poet. Social activist.

But he was so much more than the sum of his parts. As a priest and author he preached a gospel of peaceful co-existence, including among religions. His too-brief life was a spiritual journey seeking to discover and praise the common threads of people’s different beliefs and to put those beliefs into action, protesting against war and racism. His writings and teachings influenced thousands and figured prominently in the 1960s anti-war and civil rights protests and the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh to this day carries on his crusade for peace and social justice.

Coincidentally, the Center in November will present the annual Thomas Merton Award to Noam Chomsky, another renowned thinker, scholar, writer and long-time activist and potential member of The List.

The Merton quotation at the top of this column is not necessarily representative of his life’s work, but I like the simple truth it conveys as well as the timely convenience. It makes October a perfect time to start whittling The List to 20. This is not going to be easy, so I will start with those I think have to be on it and then consider the rest, the way baseball teams do in spring training.

So, not in any order, here’s the proposed foundation of the 20-person roster (If you object, speak now or start your own list):

  • Albert Einstein
  • Gandhi
  • Henry Ford
  • The Wright Brothers (count as one)
  • Thomas Edison
  • Picasso
  • Nikola Tesla
  • Mark Twain
  • James D. Watson and Francis Crick (again, count as one)
  • Winston Churchill

Churchill is the only statesman on The List, suggesting to me that most of them, while having influence because of their positions, are not necessarily great thinkers. I think Churchill was the exception in the 20th Century. His oratory, courage and vision, not to mention leadership, were profoundly important in saving the world from the Axis powers in World War II and in shaping the modern world. He was also an artist and prolific writer, who enjoyed cigars and brandy. A sampling of his quotations provides a good snapshot of the multi-dimensional man:

  • “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
  • “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
  • “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
  • “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
  • “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
  • “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
  • “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

What can I say? I like the way he thinks.

Bob can be reached at


3 Responses to “Churchill makes the cut”

  1. Edward B. Godwin Says:

    Glad for the inclusion of Winnie! In January 1966 I came for a Saturday morning interview for a position in the English department at Orange County Community College. It was a good year for getting a job in my field as candidates with Master’s degrees in English were few compared to those in education. Enrollments were up.
    I had interviewed at other community colleges. Some were over the telephone–truly a surprise. I had not anticipated that experience. I had visited Adirondack Community College. I turned down both offers. Then I came to Orange’s interview.
    Now the relevance: Unexpectedly during the interview I was asked if I were given the opportunity to structure a course what figure in the 20th Century would I chose and why. No other interview or experience prepared me for that question because I was a new teacher and did not expect that I would be creating a new course. As my mind almost went blank, Winston Churchill came to mind because of his use of language.
    However, I was weak in the knees and grateful I was sitting as I explained and defended my choice.
    At the end of the interview that involved many questions including a defense of textbooks I had used in teaching, I was offered a job. In later years I came to understand that it was the process of my thinking and use of language and materials that was being examined that day. Some of the contemporary authors mentioned in the interview I had to acknowledge I had’t read. However, I had read much of Churchill and history then and throughout my life.
    Language of our time reflects our time. The painting pallet of denotation and connotation has gone back to just the primary colors . No need to learn how to mix colors to create shades. F*** you and other grunts and farts have replaced real discussions about war and peace.

  2. Linda Mangelsdorf Says:

    Hey, Bob,

    As long as you are counting 2 for one, why not make it 3 and give Rosalind Franklin the credit she deserves for the discovery of DNA?

    Today most sources do acknowledge her somewhere in their articles (the quote below is from waaaaaaay down in a Wikipedia story), but at the time of the Nobel, she was already dead from cancer–work related, no doubt, and therefore ineligible for recognition.

    Just a thought….

    from Wikipedia:
    …Their mistake was partly based on Watson having misremembered a talk by Rosalind Franklin where she reported that she had established the water content of DNA by using X-ray crystallographic methods. But Watson did not take notes, and remembered the numbers incorrectly.

    Instead, it was Franklin’s famous “photograph 51” that finally revealed the helical structure of DNA to Watson and Crick in 1953.

  3. kathy garvey Says:

    Where, for heavens sake, is FDR, Benjamin Spock, Dorathy Day, Bill & Milinda Gates (counts as one), or for that matter Oprah Winfrey who is as fine an example of stewardship of great wealth as I can think of. Oops I ended with a preposition, Winston would not be happy.

Leave a Reply