Londoners Welcome Westminster Alumni
By Ray Ownbey
Behind the altar in St. Paul's Cathedral in London stands a memorial to the fire wardens who watched over this great structure during the hellish days of the blitz in 1940. Black-and-white photos show the wardens in their fire-fighting outfits, watching the skies and putting out fires caused by the bombs. A part of the cathedral was damaged, and buildings around it, leveled. But Christopher Wren's great neo-classical structure was not destroyed. Today, St. Paul's is a monument to the gritty strength of Londoners and the proud watchfulness of the fire wardens.
On October 2, 2001, just less than three weeks after terrorists attacked the United States, the display honoring St. Paul's fire wardens had bouquets of flowers and American flags at its base honoring other fire fighters, those who perished in the World Trade Center in New York. Visitors, Londoners and tourists alike, looked silently at the display and wiped their eyes.
The group of Westminster alumni and friends who were in London during those weeks after the terrorist attack experienced a kind of London we didn't expect. We found a city full of sympathy, full of empathy, full of strangers who heard our American accents and immediately made expressions of support, of an understanding and sharing of the pain we were all feeling.
As the organizer of the Westminster alumni trip to London, my thoughts in the days after September 11 were ambiguous. I did not want to cancel the trip, but was unsure about how people would respond to travel after the disaster. Many people expressed concerned about flying. Air travel across the nation was down significantly. Newspapers carried stories daily about increased airport security, National Guardsmen, and long waits for security checks.
I kept in touch with most of the group in those days after the attack. Concerns about air safety were replaced with concerns about war and about being stranded in London. Some people reported that their children were urging them not to go.
I contacted the airline to see if we could get any refunds on tickets for travelers who decided not to leave home, but the tickets were non-refundable, and the airlines would make no accommodations to our jittery nerves or peoples' inclinations to stay home.
Contrasted to this was the response of our London hotel. In spite of the fact that the rooms were all pre-paid by that time, the hotel offered to make refunds up until six days before our arrival for any of our group who decided not to make the trip.
This consideration on the part of Londoners was the touchstone of our trip. From the hotel to the exhibit in St. Paul's to strangers on the street, we were met with a continual and touching expression of understanding and sympathy.
Fay and Jerry Ligon of East Greenwich, Rhode Island, spent a few days in the Cotswolds west of London before joining the group in London on October 1. "Our reception was overwhelming," Fay said. "People shook our hands, hugged us, and expressed their horror at what had happened," she said. "Our taxi driver cried when he told us how he felt about the United States. He even said that England should become the 51st state. That's how close he felt. Others said the same thing."
Peg Heltman of Crestwell, Oregon, was with part of the group looking for a subway station near the Tower of London. The man she asked for help walked them three blocks to the underground stop and then said, "Things must be really terrible in the states now. We're all for you, and we'll work with you," he said, firmly holding her hand.
Heltman noted that he was probably old enough to remember the blitz that threatened St. Paul's and all of London. "It was a genuine acknowledgement of what we were going through," she said.
Later in the week, a guide on a London walk asked how many people were Americans. To those who raised their hands, he said, "Welcome home. We're with you."
The attitude was evident in many places. The London newspapers were full of accounts of the disaster and of Prime Minister Tony Blair's affirmation of Great Britain's active role in the response. The papers seemed almost to suggest that the disaster had happened to the Britains, so intense and involved were the news accounts.
Other signs of sympathy and support showed up in unusual places. On a boat trip down the River Thames, the guide pointed out overpriced riverside condos in restored warehouses and ancient pubs where various notables drank. But what we saw and remembered were American flags hanging from balconies.
A subtle indication of just how widespread the empathy for America was showed in countless lapel pins of crossed American and British flags, a powerful expression of the sympathies of the wearer. And, the pins were as common as umbrellas.
At the Royal Academy of Music, where we were treated to a special concert of harp music, harp teacher Skaila Kenga introduced the concert to us with these comments: "It's awful what's happened to you. We're pulling for you. It's time to stand together and work it out."
Perhaps no sign of Londoners' kindness was more poignant than in another part of St. Paul's Cathedral. Behind the altar is a place where people put flowers in memory of dead friends and relatives. A large bouquet of roses there was draped with an American flag and an elegantly understated note, "We grieve with you." Next to it in equal dignity was another bouquet, also draped in an American flag, this one from an American. It carried a card saying, "Thank you for your sympathy. I feel at home here in the Motherland."
We came home full of London, full of fish and chips, art galleries, underground stations, and a healthy dose of English history. Our pockets held receipts from Harrods and the National Gallery and ticket stubs from West End theaters. But, when people ask, "How was your trip," the most powerful memory is of thoughtful, caring Londoners, treating us like family, taking on our pain and telling us so.
According to Westminster Alumni Director Jeannie Holbrook, "It was an unforgettable time. We're considering another trip next year, and considering going back to London.
I hope some others can share our experiences."
Ownbey is a professor emeritus and former dean of Arts and Sciences at Westminster.