Every family has secrets. It was probably easier to keep secrets back in the 20th century. With the openness of the Internet, too many people know your personal business, not to mention your financial information.
During my college years at William & Mary in Virginia, I discovered a few family secrets that were quite interesting and also tragic. I don’t think this information was kept from me because it was very sad or disturbing. More than likely my parents didn’t think I needed to know, and, frankly, I wasn’t very curious then about my parents’ lives before I came along. My stepfather was difficult enough to deal with; I wasn’t anxious to find out about his life before he met and married my mother.
After I enrolled in the College of William & Mary, I was seldom at home for long. One summer vacation, however, I discovered a book in a family bookcase that was inscribed by my dad’s sister, Ann. Her message alluded to a difficult time in his life but she didn’t say exactly what had happened. It peeked my interest and I asked my mother about it.
My mother readily told me my stepfather had been married before she had met him, and his wife Connie had died before a year had passed. The young couple had been married in March 1943 in Alexandria, VA at the venerable St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Connie Barrett, a graduate of St. Agnes School in Alexandria, was the daughter of a Marine Corps Major General, Charles Barrett, whose family had deep roots in historic Virginia.
My mother finally solved the minor mystery of the initials CAB on the family set of sterling silverware we had been using for years. Mom had always told us it was an antique, and had never explained it had belonged to Connie (maybe a wedding gift). My dad eventually told me a little about Connie, significantly that I would have liked her.
The connections that were to follow were odd coincidences. Connie, a diabetic since childhood, had died from diabetic shock on New Year’s Day 1944, while her husband, my dad, had been on duty at Ft. Belvoir. Connie’s mother had come to visit her; when her daughter didn’t answer the door, she let herself in and found her dead. Connie was only 20 years old, and the day she passed was the day I turned a year old.
At William & Mary, I had lived in Barrett Dormitory three years–from sophomore to senior year. There was a lovely study room/museum on the first floor dedicated to Connie’s grandmother, Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, who had endowed the dormitory and had given some of her cherished Chinese decorative mementoes to be displayed in special cases in that room. I was surprised when I discovered she was connected to my family. Dr. Kate Waller Barrett (who had her medical degree) was a Virginian devoted to philanthropy and had opened a home for unwed mothers in Atlanta, the first of the Crittenton missions. She was also one of only 10 women invited to the Versailles Conference in France after WWI. Mrs. Barrett, mother of Maj. Gen. Barrett, had died in 1925, when Connie was two.
Connie’s father, Charles Barrett, was a Marine Corps career officer and had been promoted to Major General in 1942 while he was stationed in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, serving under Admiral William Halsey. In September 1943 he had been given the command of the 1st Marine Amphibious Corps (IMAC-a name way before it was a computer!) The general died on October 8, 1943 in a strange accident a few months before Connie died.
General Barrett was off duty that October evening. After talking to fellow officers for a short time, he had gone to his second floor bedroom in the officers’ quarters in Bordinat House to wash up before joining other officers for dinner. Not long after, a Marine sentry came rushing into the living room of the quarters to announce that the general had fallen from the second floor porch to the sidewalk below. He had been dressed in his khaki working uniform and was still breathing but unconscious. An ambulance took him to a Navy hospital but he never regained consciousness and died shortly after. At the military court of inquiry, there were comments that the general had looked stressed and tired before he fell off the porch. When they inspected his body, they could see his injuries had been extreme. The court ruled he had died in the line of duty. He was only 58 and had served in the Marine Corps for 34 years.
The Barretts were a well-respected and well-remembered family in Virginia. An elementary school in Alexandria was named after General Barrett, and a Marine Corps building in Quantico–Barrett Hall, as well as Camp Barrett, the basic officers’ school on the Marine base. Tom FitzPatrick, who had attended Charles Barrett School, was so inspired by General Barrett’s life that he wrote a book– A CHARACTER THAT INSPIRED: MAJOR GENERAL CHARLES D. BARRETT, USMC, published in 2003. He did such a thorough job, the book is 761 pages long. My sister shared some photos she had of Connie and my dad, and I, in turn, have borrowed some photos and information from Tom’s book.