Reflections on the life of Keith Killby were the central theme of the charity’s annual lunch at the Royal Overseas League, London, on November 8th 2018. The achievements of Keith Killby, who died in September 2018 aged 102, had already been spelt out in national newspaper obituaries: he was at various times a conscientious objector serving with the SAS; an escaping prisoner of war; a post-war advocate of European unity; a leading light of the meat trade; and, last but by no means least, the founder of the Monte San Martino Trust in 1989.
But the 139 guests present at the lunch were given a closer insight into the character of an extraordinary man through an address from Letitia Blake, the Secretary, who described how a working relationship with Keith over 14 years developed into a close friendship and eventually membership of the care team that looked after him in his London flat towards the end.
Welcoming the guests, Nick Young, chairman, thanked trustee Christine English for organising the lunch so brilliantly and introduced Raffaele Trombetta, who had taken up his post as Italian Ambassador at the start of the year and was attending his first MSMT lunch. Mr Trombetta, whose British wife Victoria was also present, is on his second posting to London, having served as Consul from 1990 to 1995. In response, the Ambassador said how much he looked forward to working with the Trust and how important it was, in the current political climate, to maintain initiatives on the human level such as those promoted by MSMT.
Nick Young went on to thank Francesco Trivelloni, mayor of Fontanellato, and three colleagues – all of whom were present – for having organised the magnificent celebrations in the town two months earlier to mark the 75th anniversary of the Armistice. He spoke of two moments that had sent shivers down his spine. The first was when he was standing in the former PoW camp on the same spot, at the same time of day, as the prisoners had been when they were briefed about the Armistice and told that an agreement had been reached for them to escape from the camp before the Germans arrived.
The second moment was when he was informed, on the first evening of the reunion, that, back in London, Keith Killby had passed away. Keith died at the very moment supporters were cheering him. It was decided the concert of arias in the charming Fontanellato theatre should go ahead and, as it ended, Nick and Francesco Trivelloni went on stage to break the news.
Taking up the microphone, Letitia Blake said it had been a strange experience forming a friendship with a man who was already 88 years old at the time of their meeting. She, like several other Trust volunteers, had been drawn into working for MSMT because Keith had identified her as “useful”, as a do-er, – a quality he valued. “He was a terrible volunteer-er of other people,” she said. Whenever she entered his flat she would be presented with a list of jobs on the back of an envelope, with one of them often “lunch”.
“There were quite a lot of things up with which he would not put,” she said, among them treating people with disrespect, and laziness. A prolific letter writer, all kinds of authorities and people who did not do their jobs properly felt his disapproval. He could be stubborn, “testardo”, too, as he acknowledged. Not a man given to smiling, he could, however, shake with silent mirth.
Letitia, whom Keith insisted on addressing as Letizia, as in the Italian, said that he accepted the OBE not for personal reasons but because the award recognised the work of the Trust. But the honour that meant the most to him was honorary citizenship of the town of Monte San Martino in the Marche. Keith made many annual visits to the Tenna Valley – “la mia valle” as he called it – to see old friends he had met after escaping from Servigliano PoW camp.
Letitia had been compelled to pull out of the Fontanellato trip in order to stay with Keith, who was very weak by that point. Just before he died she was able to tell him that “there was a lot of love coming to him from Italy”. The last word he spoke was “lunch”, which Letitia took to be an invitation to her and the carer to attend as his guests. It was, she said, “very Keith”.
After Letitia finished speaking, guests continued to enjoy conversations at their tables until John Simkins, MSMT’s administrator, brought proceedings to a close. He thanked Edward Gretton, student organiser, for co-ordinating the bursaries of 37 young Italians in 2018, the biggest intake to date. He also thanked the Principals of the language schools used by the Trust in London and Oxford, and the volunteers who take students from airports to their homestay families. More volunteers were sorely needed.
John referred to the research by Brian Lett, former MSMT chairman, into the heroism of Italian families who sheltered escapers and, with them in mind, he called on those assembled to join him in a toast to the “contadini”, before wishing everybody a safe journey home.
To read an obituary of Keith Killby and tributes, click on the link below.