One Sunday in April 1949, mechanical-engineering major Jack Baker ‘49 got up early as usual and went to Walker Memorial, where he worked for the dining service each day to cover the cost of his meals. He checked the duty roster and found that he and three other students had been assigned to serve breakfast at the president’s house across the street.
Unbeknownst to Baker, James Rhyne Killian ‘26, MIT’s new president (and the first alumnus to hold the office), was hosting a most distinguished guest that morning: Winston Churchill, then between his two terms as prime minister of England. Churchill had spoken to an audience of nearly 14,000 at Boston Garden a few days earlier, at the start of MIT’s three-day Mid-Century Convocation. The event, which included speeches by visiting dignitaries as well as panel discussions, was conceived as an opportunity to examine the state of the postwar world, the progress of science, and the role of MIT.
Churchill’s speech, which received a standing ovation, called on Western powers to remain united and to support scientific and technological advancements. It even included a touch of classic British self-deprecation: “I feel somewhat overawed in addressing this vast scientific and learned audience on the subjects which your panels are discussing. I have no technical and no university education, and have just had to pick up a few things as I went along.” (Click to see a transcript and video footage of Churchill’s address.)
Tom Toohy ‘49 served as an usher for some of Churchill’s entourage and, as senior class president, was seated on the dais while he spoke. “It was a great opportunity to watch Mr. Churchill give his magnificent speech from a distance of 20 feet,” says Toohy, a management major and retired IBM sales executive who now lives in Manchester Center, VT. “In those days there was no teleprompter. He just used single pages that looked like they were specific topics, quotes, or key statements, and handwritten in large letters. As he finished using each page, he just pushed them off to the right and some just fell off to the floor.”
The convocation culminated that Saturday in Rockwell Cage with Killian’s formal inauguration as the 10th president of MIT. More than 200 university leaders from the United States and abroad joined the inaugural procession.
The following morning, when Baker and his fellow students arrived at the president’s residence, Killian “looked kind of worried that we were going to screw it up,” he says. “And being new on the job, he was less used to this kind of company.” But he needn’t have been concerned. “We were on our best behavior,” says Baker, a retired engineer and corporate recruiter, now 81, from his winter residence in Sun City Center, FL.
Baker, who shared his history-buff father’s admiration for Churchill, still remembers his first glimpse of the famous Brit. “He had on some kind of a silky dressing gown, and he had a glass of amber fluid in his hand,” he recalls. “It was about 10 a.m. I doubt that the amber fluid was ginger ale.”
Sharp as ever at age 74, Churchill did his best to put the students at ease. “I quickly got the impression that Winston Churchill put on his pants one leg at a time and that he was a human being,” says Baker. “He was very kind to us that day, and he knew we were uptight. He picked the perfect subject to talk about–girls!”
According to Baker, Churchill opened with this: “Early this morning, about two o’clock, I heard one hell of a party going on across the courtyard from my bedroom. About 20 shrill female voices, too. I thought MIT was an all-male school. What is going on here, boys?”
Baker recalls that one of the students gave this safe answer: “We heard the same party and shrill voices you did, sir. We had to get to bed at 10 p.m. to be on the job this morning at 8 a.m.” After informing Churchill that MIT was, in fact, coed, the student added, “What we all really heard, sir, was more likely Wellesley girls.”
Though Baker wasn’t in Churchill’s company for long, the chance meeting had a lasting effect on him. “Heck, it was only about 20 minutes of history, but as a result of it I probably read a lot more Churchill books than I might have,” he says. “The surprise that day has made me very comfortable expecting the unexpected, all my life.”