At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond, a stained-glass memorial to a young victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic provides inspiration during this challenging time. The so-called Spanish flu virus quickly spread to Richmond from Camp Lee in the fall of 1918, where nearly 48,000 soldiers were training during World War I.
To ease patient overload in local hospitals, John Marshall High School was converted into a 500-bed emergency hospital. With schools closed, 15-year-old John Langbourne “Jack” Williams, along with other Boy Scouts, organized an ambulance corps to help transport hospital patients. Jack already had proven himself to be a capable leader of the Cadet Corps at the Chamberlayne School for Boys, now St. Christopher’s.
Jack’s parents, E. Randolph Williams and Maude Stokes Williams, understandably were worried about their son. In a letter shared at a 2018 St. Christopher’s chapel service, Jack informed a friend that “Mother and Father have just finished blowing me up for working all day yesterday” at the hospital.
However, Jack appeared more concerned about hospital patients than his own safety, recounting in particular a 3-year-old orphan, telling his friend “anybody would have been touched, ... had they seen this poor little boy, stricken with a bad case of pneumonia, gazing with tearful eyes upon a crowd of bemasked doctors and nurses.”
There was cause for concern. The estimated number of infected Richmonders topped 10,000 that October. Shortly after volunteering with the ambulance corps, Jack also contracted the flu and died on Oct. 16, 1918. His fellow Boy Scout troop members attended his funeral and afterwards, they continued volunteering throughout the fall of 1918, providing transport to more than 700 patients.
On Dec.1, 1918, St. Paul’s held a memorial service to place gold stars on the church’s service flag for two young communicants who, while serving in the military, recently had died during WWI. One of them, Adair Pleasants Archer, died of the flu at Camp Grant Hospital in Illinois. With school headmaster the Rev. Churchill Gibson Chamberlayne assisting, a gold star in honor of young Jack Williams also was placed on a Boy Scout banner. After the service, the flag and banner were flown together from the church’s portico.
Chamberlayne eloquently wrote about the promising student who lost his own life while saving others, providing assurance Jack would “continue throughout our lives to speak, inspiring tones to us all.”
Ten years later, in March 1928, a stained-glass window was donated by Jack’s parents in St. Paul’s as a memorial to their son. The work of Lamb Studios, the window depicts a young crusader kneeling before an angel who blesses and honors him with a laurel wreath. On the crusader’s tabard is a red cross — a symbol of medical service and humanitarian aid. The inscription, accompanied by the Boy Scout insignia, reads: “Greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friend.” John 15:13.
In Richmond, many others stepped up to help during the highly contagious and deadly pandemic. Churches opened soup kitchens to feed the sick, as well as health care workers and those who had lost income. St. Paul’s and neighboring St. Peter’s Catholic Church, located across East Grace Street, together provided 1,218 nourishing quarts in 21 days.
Women who initially had sewn supplies for the war effort switched to creating masks and other hospital materials as the virus spread. Others cared for patients, including recent registered-nurse graduate and St. Paul’s member Juliet Dushane Talcott, who died of the flu in October 1918.
With pressure mounting, Richmond lifted restrictions in November and flu cases surged again. Eventually, the outbreak subsided worldwide in 1919, leaving in its wake 675,000 fatalities across the United States. In Virginia, more than 15,000 perished, with a little more than 1,000 Richmonders among them.
Facing the current pandemic 100 years later, we can be thankful for modern medical advances, the promise of a vaccine and lessons learned from 1918. Technology also makes remote work and learning possible for many.
However, challenges remain as leaders struggle to gauge how to safely ease restrictions in the midst of increasing death tolls and financial hardships. Front-line workers risk their lives daily to treat patients, sanitize hospitals, stock shelves and perform other essential tasks.
During this challenging time, Jack Williams and other selfless helpers — past and present — provide inspiration. We can assist our community by supporting local businesses, and adhering to guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks. Nonprofits, including St. Paul’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, are another safe and important way to help during this difficult time. Like Richmond did during the 1918 pandemic, we can and will get through this together.
Anne Hayes of Henrico County is a 10-year member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org