Column: Why the British hero Captain Tom Moore mattered so much, dead now from coronavirus

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

Why did an old man pottering around his perfectly ordinary garden come to mean so much to the British struggle against COVID-19?

A hundred thousand reasons.

On Jan. 26, the United Kingdom reported its 100,000th death from the coronavirus. It was a grim milestone shared by the United States, which hit that number in May of last year, albeit reflecting a much larger population.

But there’s another relevant number when it comes to the beloved centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore, who deserves his full title and who died Wednesday from both pneumonia and, in a cruel twist of fate, the virus he had empowered so many to better fight: 60,375.

That, according to Britain’s National Archives, was the number of civilian deaths during World War II. For many Brits of a certain age, the moment when the COVID-19 toll passed the number of ordinary folks killed between 1939 and 1945, mostly as a consequence of Nazi bombing campaigns, represented the most difficult day of all. Even for those not alive during the war, which now is the vast bulk of the population, the losses of those years are etched in the collective national memory as an unequaled collective sacrifice. Children were killed in rubble. Impoverished inner-city families were lost at their kitchen tables. Cities burned.

Moore was a veteran of that war, and thus he provided a crucial link to a previous era, a mythology really, where many people sacrificed their lives for the common good. Public health officials, desperate to get people to change their behavior, understood his symbolic power.

Most of the deaths from COVID-19 had taken place in the quiet shadows, in care homes and hospitals hidden not only from public view, but from the loving gaze of family members. They did not spark protests or riots for they were cloaked in old age. Few of them were rich people or citizens with access to social-media megaphones. They have been, in short, mostly anonymous occurrences, assessed collectively.

But Moore was a friendly face, a modest, self-deprecating volunteer, a man taking what little was available to him (his garden and his walking frame) and choosing to do something with those resources that he did not expect to benefit himself.

Not only was Moore a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, his walk around the garden to raise funds for Britain’s National Health Service might well go down in the history books as one of his generation’s last, great public acts of beneficence.

He could be the last chapter in that book.

And historians will argue it was not an insubstantial contribution.

He raised in excess of $50 million for the cause of public health, sure, but he also was a human motivation machine spawning countless other walks, runs, jogs and bake-offs. In the U.K., he was not the face of the virus, but the face of the war required to combat its ravages. Most of those who have died were old. It was right that their spokesperson was one of their own.

It’s easy to be cynical about heroes and, somewhere early in the story of Captain Sir Tom Moore, there was a daughter with a press release. But the modest aim, clearly, was just to raise a few British pounds for the NHS and help a man who still felt the need to serve. The rise of this man never felt like the consequence of a cynical algorithm.

Moore’s extraordinary age and humility helped. There was a book (”Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day”), talk shows and other stuff, but he was still about as pure a hero as it possible to be, not least because his heroism was so rooted in the ordinary.

A walk around the garden, that was all. But a walk after living and serving for a century.

In some ways, the end of Moore’s life is like a bucket-list fairy tale, something we might all wish in our most improbable dreams. An ordinary life that becomes not just a great life, but one acknowledged as such by much of the world.

Imagine. Interviews with media elites. An audience with the queen. A knighthood. The flag above the Prime Minister’s residence lowered in your honor. A respectful pause taken in contentious debate at the Houses of Parliament, noting your death.

A name written in fireworks across the London sky on New Year’s Eve.

A No. 1 single in the U.K. pop charts. Yeah.

A legacy of persistence, of sacrifice, of unselfishness, of humor and good cheer.

A quotidian life, suddenly of extraordinary usefulness by writ of its very ordinary nature.

What an incredibly wonderful way to go.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com