The Grandmother I Didn’t See

Ellen Mulvihill Spearing
Ellen Mulvihill Spearing

I had a scary grandmother. She was my father’s mother,Ellen Mulvihill Spearing, an old woman, bent from arthritis and tucked into an easy chair in the living room. Worst of all, I couldn’t understand a thing she said in her thick Irish brogue, so she would yell at me. That sent me scurrying out of the room.

No wonder I was afraid of her, but now I wonder if I had truly seen her or could have seen her differently. I had never known her as a young woman, as a teenage immigrant, as a homemaker trying to feed a growing family or as the mother who lost a son in World War I. To be fair, I was a small child; I couldn’t have the vision or even the language, to understand her world. But last week that changed. The fog of time lifted and I began to see Ellen Spearing.

Georges Scott (1873-1943) illustration "American Marines in Belleau Wood (1918)" - originally published in the French Magazine "Illustrations" - retrieved from
Georges Scott (1873-1943) illustration “American Marines in Belleau Wood (1918)” – originally published in the French Magazine “Illustrations”

Ellen’s second son, Pvt. Walter Joseph Spearing, 23rd Co. 5th Reg. U.S. Marine Corp, was killed in action at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France, June 1918. By all reports, Walt, was a fun-loving but serious young man, a ginger-haired boy who excelled at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia and had gone on to the University of Pennsylvania. I didn’t see Ellen when she opened a letter of condolence from her son’s friend. In fact, I knew nothing about the letter until last week, when thanks to newspaper archivists, and modern technology, I received a copy of Ellen’s letter.

Spearing Head Stone
Spearing Head Stone

Walter Spearing and his best buddy, Pvt. Sol Segel had promised each other that if one of them died the survivor would try to “console the sorrowing mother” of the other.

So shortly after the battle, when the guns were quiet, Sol Segel sat down next to his friend’s grave, and wrote words that “fullfill a duty I am bound by oath and will to perform.” From the distance, almost 100 years later, we may not view the First World War through Segel’s lens as “martyrdom in the Holy Cause of Freedom and Liberty.” But I was touched by his nobility, sick his own losses, he wrote to comfort his buddy’s family.

“There is grief in my heart,” he wrote, “and in the hearts of all my comrades for the great sorrow that this war has brought to you and to us. We all unite to express our heartfelt sympathy and condolences….

“Beneath the green in Belleau Woods, forever connected with the ‘Honor of the Marines,’ lies Walt with two comrades, dead on the ‘Field of honor.’ Above their graves the stately pines sway in their grandeur, an imperishable monument….

Dear lady, the very thought of you in grief tears my heart…. In the name of the Twenty-third Company, in the name of the Marines, I salute you and all my comrades salute you.”

Unknown to me, a writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Chris Gibbons, was researching alumni of the Catholic High School who had died in the war and came across Ellen’s letter. He found my name in and contacted me hoping I might know some of Walter’s classmates.

Oddly enough, Gibbons recently used Ellen’s historic letter in a Mothers’ Day article for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote, “The pledge between Segal and Spearing, as well as the letter sent to Spearing’s mother, Ellen, is certainly not unique in the long, tragic annals of warfare….

“What was unique about this war was how mothers organized….

“In September 1917…the ‘American War Mothers’ organization formed…and quickly spread across the country. These mothers, who had children serving in the military, displayed a flag in their home windows with a blue star denoting the service of a child. Many displayed more than one star. If a son [or daughter] was killed in action, a gold star was sewn over the blue. These women subsequently became known as the ‘Gold Star Mothers,’ a phrase coined by President Woodrow Wilson….

“After the war, the American War Mothers … assisted families who wished to have their sons’ bodies brought back for burial in the United States. …[they also helped organize]…the ‘Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages,’ in which the government paid the travel expenses of families who wished to visit the European grave sites of their … [loved ones].

As for Ellen Spearing, she did not sit privately with her grief. Shortly after receiving the letter from Segal…she sent a copy to her congressman, J. Hampton Moore with a message “…to demonstrate the spirit of the boys in the district you represent”. She also requested he share it with his colleagues in Congress. The letter was subsequently published on the front page of the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger.

In 1921, my grandparents had the body of their son exhumed from its battlefield grave, shipped to the United States, and reburied in St. Denis cemetery [Philadelphia].”

Chris Gibbons wrote that he visited Walter Spearing’s grave earlier this year and was surprised to see that Ellen’s name is not on the grave stone although that of Walter’s father Cornelius is.

Chris concludes, “As I stared at the grave, I could only shake my head in sadness. It’s almost as if Ellen Spearing, the mother who wanted to ensure that her son and the boys in her district would not be forgotten, had never existed.”

I want to reassure Chris Gibbons on this Memorial Day that Ellen Spearing is remembered. And, if I could speak to her across the intervening century, I’d say, “I see you now as a person who lived her values. As a woman in 1918, you couldn’t vote, but you found your voice, and you used it to speak your truth on behalf of the voiceless soldiers and their families. I might not agree with you about the First World War; I might think it was a disaster; but I salute you, Ellen, I salute your steadfastness in the face of loss. You clearly valued loyalty – loyalty to your family, your neighbors, your country and your God.

– Connie Spearing

Editor’s note:  Connie Spearing may not have “seen” her grandmother, but she certainly walks in Ellen Spearing’s footsteps. Connie is a prominent activist in her San Francisco Bay Area community.

© 2016, words and photographs (portrait and gravestone), Connie Spearing, All rights reserved; “American Marines in Belleau Wood (1918)”  is in the public domain


Commentary: Love and loss on home front,, May 9, 2016


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