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On His 70th Birthday, Chris Hebb Recalls the Early History of the Churchill Societies

Long-time Churchillian Christopher Hebb was asked to pen a short piece about the history of his association with the the Churchill Societies.
Chris-Hebb-70thIan Marshall, Chris Hebb, and Brooke Campbell
By Christopher Hebb

I was fortunate to grow up during the lifetime of Sir Winston Churchill. I remember the relief when Sir Winston was elected Prime Minister in 1951 and I clearly remember the day of Churchill’s death in 1965 when I was in Law School in Toronto. I well remember listening to Matthew Halton during the late ’40’s as the Cold War developed and Stalin and Molotov worked to move the Iron Curtain ever westward and Secretary of State Marshall instituted the Marshall Plan to overcome the threat.

The first Churchill Society in the world and the only one created during the life of Churchill was formed in Edmonton, Alberta in 1964. The second Churchill Society was formed in Calgary, Alberta in 1965. I spent my youth from the age of five to fourteen in Edmonton and my parents resided there until their deaths in the l990’s. My father was an early member of the Edmonton Churchill Society; joining in 1965. The Edmonton Society would bring speakers once a year to address its members. The early speakers were all close associates of Sir Winston including Lord Harding, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Earl Alexander of Tunis, Lord R.A.B. Butler, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and General Mark Clark. I would return from Law School in Toronto to attend the Banquets in Edmonton in the mid-sixties and had the privilege of meeting Lord Mountbatten on one of these occasations.

My father, Dr. Harvey Hebb, became President of the Edmonton Society 1974-1975. The speaker that year was Sir John (Jock) Colville. My parents became friends with Jock and his wife Meg and visited them in the U.K. It was during that time that my father came up with the idea of the Edmonton Society sponsoring a graduate student to attend Churchill College, Cambridge. I quote from what he wrote in 1992 prior to his death about the origin of the Scholarship:

“I became a member of the Churchill Society in 1965 and soon after became a member of the executive. In 1975, I became President at the time that Sir John Colville, the former private secretary to Sir Winston Churchill, was the speaker at the Annual Banquet.

In the summer of 1976 when my wife and I were in England we were invited to Jock’s home. While there, we were given a private tour of Blenheim Palace and had lunch with the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Jock arranged a trip for us to visit Churchill College, Cambridge.

Sir John was very much involved with Churchill College and was instrumental in raising funds for its building. Sir John was very proud of the success of Churchill College and in a letter written in 1977 he stated:

“Churchill College has done so well in the last two years, specifically in the realm of Science and Technology, that its members have won more first class honors than any other College at Oxford or Cambridge, or, I suspect, anywhere else. In consequence, the number of applicants for places has now soared, and this autumn the total number of applicants for 1978 entry is higher than either Trinity College, Cambridge or Christ Church, Oxford. That is a remarkable achievement for a College less than 20 years old.”

We were escorted by the Vice-Master on a tour of the College followed by a luncheon at the home of the Master, Sir William Hawthorne. During the luncheon, Sir William asked for details concerning the activities of the Churchill Society in Edmonton. I recounted the names of the distinguished speakers who had come each year since 1965 – and described the debates given by high school students on the history of the World War Two and Churchill’s role in it sponsored by the Society. In the silence which followed, it occurred to me that the Society should extend its raison d’être to include a Scholarship whereby a graduate student from the University of Alberta would attend Churchill College. I asked Sir William if he would be interested in having a student come to Cambridge from the University of Alberta, and, if so, what type of student would he prefer. His prompt reply was “yes, someone interested in ENERGY”.

At a meeting of the Executive of the Churchill Society in 1976, I was appointed chairman of the Scholarship Foundation. Application was forwarded to Ottawa in order to register the Foundation as a charitable organization. The purpose was to establish a scholarship for a graduate of the University of Alberta to attend Churchill College for three years in pursuit of a Ph.D. degree.

Interested individuals both from the members of the Churchill Society and from other members of the community contributed sufficient money to enable our first Edmonton Churchill Scholar to receive an award of $5,500 in 1978.

Since then three graduate students from the University of Alberta have each completed three years at Churchill College and have received Ph.D. degrees.

With assistance of funds from the Provincial Government of Alberta, the capital sum has reached more than a half million dollars. The University of Alberta can grant an annual scholarship which is valued at $20,000.

It was Sir Winston’s wish that Churchill College should occupy a place in Great Britain similar to that of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

We have been fortunate in securing Faculty of Engineering students to send to Churchill College. They have been a credit both to the University of Alberta and to Churchill College.

I visited Churchill College in 1975 when Sir William Hawthorne was Master and also in 1987 as a guest of Sir Hermann Bondi, the present Master. Both assured me of their entire satisfaction with the Scholarship and quality of the students selected.

We look forward to the continuation of this link with the University of Alberta and Churchill College both for the benefit of students and as a tribute to the memory of Sir Winston Churchill.”

In the late ’60’s I was working in Alberta and would attend the Calgary Society’s Banquets.

In the 1970’s I was based Vancouver, British Columbia and though working around the world, I would on occasion try to attend a Banquet in Edmonton or Calgary. In 1979, the Churchill Society of British Columbia was formed based in Vancouver.

I was fortunate to meet The Lady Soames in 1984 when she made her first addresses to the Societies at their Annual Banquets. The formats of the Banquets started to change. In the early days 1200 men would attend in Edmonton accompanied by military bands, much formality, port and cognac and lots of cigars. The Banquets largely resembled mess dinners. With the coming of The Lady Soames and the changing of the times, the ladies joined the men and the events became ever more civilized. Clouds were on the horizon, however, as the close associates of Churchill became older and more frail. No longer did the Banquets have the energy they once did. Working habits changed as city commuting became more difficult and working hours started earlier, particularly in Western Canada to be in sync with the Eastern financial markets. My wife, Dorothy, and I attended a Banquet in Vancouver in 1998 where the speaker was introduced at 11:00 p.m. This was not an organization that fit us and we no longer attended events.

In 2000 my career finally permitted me to take the time to attend an International Churchill Conference sponsored by the Churchill Centre based at that time in Washington, D.C. My wife and I traveled to Anchorage and thoroughly enjoyed the excellent and extremely memorable Conference chaired by Jim Muller. We were so appreciative of that Conference that we attended the next nine International Conferences.

In 2001 Dr. Joe Siegenberg approached me to join the Board of the British Columbia Society. He was an extremely strong supporter of my father’s fundraising efforts for the Churchill College Scholarship. He had recently moved to Vancouver and had been asked by the Vancouver Society Board to take over as president. He replied in the affirmative provided I would join him in the effort. The Vancouver Society had gradually declined to only 40 families. Attempts to attract people who remembered Churchill to small venues were less than successful.

My first approach was to determine the market for the Society. I thought academics would be fascinated with Churchill. Not so! Only a small number of scholars focus on Churchill. I soon learned that the market was businessmen and professionals: those that looked to Churchill for inspiration, those who had faced serious challenges in their lives, those who were responsible for others, those who had to make payroll for their employees. In the dark times, anyone could compare their situation to Churchill’s in 1940 and gain self confidence in taking on their challenges.

The next issue was how to attract younger members. We did that in two ways: We expanded the mission of the Society to included presentations on Churchill as well as on topics in which Churchill would have been interested. This format continues to this day where our Society mixes talks strictly related to Churchill together with other talks that are focused on current events or other items of historical interest. In British Columbia, we have also been successful in locating and presenting people who made contributions to our freedom: people who served at Bletchley Park and other historical locations. We had ten veterans of D-Day attend as part of a presentation on the Invasion. The Society settled on The Vancouver Club as the venue for our events. It is a delightful spot, well run and with a great ambiance. Although it has a long history, it does not have the feel of an old club.

Secondly and perhaps most importantly we scheduled our meetings to attract working people. Our Annual Banquets and Annual Meetings are dinner events with speakers, but concluding in early enough for those that need to be in the office the following morning. Our Society also runs three or four “Evenings With Churchill” each year. These events conclude by 7:00 p.m. to allow plenty of time for other family events.

We recently conducted a survey of our members. Interestingly, one of the highlights of the Society was the interaction of the members. The members look forward to seeing each other at each event. Thus the social component of the events has become increasingly important.

The Society’s focus has been on attracting young and energetic speakers, and with these programmes our membership has grown to 115 families. I have been privileged to be President since 2003.

In 2003 I was asked to join the Board of The Churchill Centre. I enjoyed the association immensely and became Treasurer in the mid 2000’s prior to my retirement from that Board in June, 2008, by which time the Endowment Fund stood at $1,400,000. I was fortunate in my timing as I did not have to face the financial meltdown that commenced in September, 2008. Dorothy and I have made so many friends through The Churchill Centre. What a fine group have collected under that umbrella!

As a result of my association with The Churchill Centre, our British Columbia Society ran the International Churchill Conference in September, 2007. It was held at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver with 275 registrants. It is the only International Conference where the number of Canadian participants exceeded the number of Americans. The theme was Churchill and the Pacific War. We started the Conference with an Allied Reception sponsored by the U.S. and British Consul Generals. The first presentation was by Rear Admiral Ken Summers, former commander, Canadian Forces Middle East who discussed the Role of the Canadian Forces in the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. His address was of particular interest to the American attendees who had not been exposed to the role of the Canadians.

Presentations were made on the Geopolitical Considerations of the Pacific War, the Fall of Singapore, Churchill and Australia, the China-Burma-India Theatre and the March to Victory: Admiral Nimitz, General MacArthur and the Island Hopping Campaign. The highlight of the Conference was the celebration of the 85th Birthday of The Lady Soames. Our youngest delegate, aged eleven, was able to stand on a chair at the podium and wish The Lady Soames Happy Birthday. It was a most memorable occasion. Several people, subsequent to the Conference, described it as a magical event. I hope those happy memories do not subside. Our Vancouver Society team worked very hard to make the Conference a success and worked very well together.

We continue to attract fine speakers to our British Columbia Society events. Our Essay Contest for university students at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University continues to thrive. I am delighted with the cooperation of more and more Societies, including the Edmonton and Calgary Societies, the Vancouver Island Society, the Seattle Society and the Northern Californian Society, in organizing speakers of the highest caliber.

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