La Petite Goffinet: The Story of a Name

By Connie Barnard

La Petite Goffinet: The Story of a Name

Many of us have names with ties that bind us to the past. We carry around the history of a barely remembered relative, the admired friend of a parent, maybe even a film star from another era. Few, however, tell a story like that of Goffinet Hutton McLaren who was named in tribute to a Belgian village priest who sheltered and protected Goffinet’s father after his British plane was shot down over Europe during World War II. A native of Northern Ireland who has lived in the U.S. since 1979, Goffinet says, “I did not fully appreciate the depth of this honor bestowed on me until my husband, Ian, and I retired to Litchfield Beach in 2006. While going through boxes which had not been touched for nearly half a century, I found yellowed photographs of my father as a young man surrounded by a collection of unfamiliar faces. One of the photos was Father Georges Goffinet, leader of a Resistance group in Belgium whose members risked their lives to protect American and British airmen.” Over time Goffinet learned that tragically, a few weeks after her father was handed off to the care of another Resistance family, the young priest with the code name “Night Owl” was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp where he died three years later. Goffinet knew that she must tell the story of this brave man and her father. Thus began a two year research project involving multiple trips to Europe, culminating in a newly published book, TOM: A Life Saved – Lives Lost.

Goffinet grew up in the picturesque town of Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, with its ancient Norman castle and historic St. Nicholas Anglican Church adjacent to the renowned Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. An inveterate adventurer, Goffinet joined the flight crew of Aer Lingus Airways in 1967 and traveled the world with the airline until 1980. In July of 1976, on a flight to Boston in celebration of the USA’s bi-centennial, she happened to notice a handsome young man seated in Seat 14-C. With uncharacteristic boldness she said to him, “You look like a fine Irish rugby man.” Ian McLaren, also originally from Northern Ireland, was living outside Boston, doing post-doctoral research in physics at MIT. However, he was indeed a dedicated rugby aficionado and skilled player who served as president of the New England Rugby Union. Ian would go on to found and serve as president of Umbro USA and vice-president for Global Brand Development, but on this warm summer day in 1976, Goffinet Hutton and Ian McLaren met and fell in love 35,000 feet above sea level. They married in 1979 and moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where they would live for the next 26 years.

While living in Greenville, Goffinet was actively involved with a number of service projects, including one she personally initiated at her son’s elementary school. “Book Buddies,” a reading program for underserved children, was recognized by the South Carolina Board of Education in 1993 as the Volunteer Program of the Year. A breast cancer survivor, McLaren also led volunteer efforts for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and created the fundraising campaign “Caroling for the Cure” at Furman University from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1992 with a degree in political science and history. “Caroling for the Cure” quickly became an established annual event which raised significant funds to support cancer research. Ian and Goffinet’s son Moutray is an attorney currently serving on a Congressional staff in Washington, DC.

In 2006, the McLarens retired to Litchfield Beach. Goffinet says of the move, “We loved Greenville. It had everything we wanted except the ocean. I had grown up surrounded by the sea. It feeds my soul.” Since their move to the coast, Ian and Goffinet have stayed active and involved. They enjoy competitive tennis and support local Sea Turtle efforts. Both are dedicated environmentalists, particularly concerned with the devastating effects of plastic debris in the ocean. They are also leaders of an effort to encourage the elimination of plastic bags by local shops.

La Petite Goffinet: The Story of a Name

Goffinet’s concerns regarding the damaging effects of plastic debris prompted her to add the job title of author to her already extensive resume. Seeking an interesting way to educate the public about the dangers to sea creatures, she wrote and published the children’s book, Sullie Saves the Seas. A popular seller at Litchfield Books, the story targets 8-12 year olds, but its appeal is universal, teaching important lessons with wisdom and humor through the courageous antics of super-seagull Sullie.

After Sullie’s successful completion, Goffinet knew the time had come to tell the story of her father and the brave citizens of Belgium who sheltered him. With boxes of labeled photographs and her father’s handwritten notes, the McLarens began to piece together Tom Hutton’s amazing war torn journey from Carrickfergus and back again. It is the story of the madman Hitler who directed the murder of millions and the physical and emotional torture of millions more. It is also the story of brave British and American troops who answered the call of duty to stop his insatiable fury and of the courageous citizens of the Resistance Movement who fought to save civilization in Europe and provide safe passage for air crews shot down in their battlefields.

Through several ongoing Resistance organizations including the British and American Escape and Evasion Societies, the McLarens were able to meet family members of those who assisted in Tom’s escape. Several of them, young children at the time, clearly remember their secret British houseguests. Step by step, the McLarens pieced together Tom’s story and established a deep friendship with these Belgian families who greeted her with the warm words: Ah! La Petite Goffinet.

On April 16, 1943, Tom was a wireless operator on the RAF Lancaster Bomber W4366, part of a seven man crew on a mission to destroy a factory in Occupied Czechoslovakia which produced ball bearing and other munitions for the Nazi war machine. In his pocket he carried a small white pebble from the beach in Carrickfergus given to him by his wife as a good luck charm. Tom wrote, “As we approached the target city, I was standing at the rear of the aircraft when I saw a huge flash under the fuselage and felt the plane shudder…I could not see the damage. However, the Lancaster’s starboard engine was on fire.” They released the load of bombs targeted for the Skoda Works and circled to return home when Tom heard the Captain shout the orders every crew member feared, “Pilot to crew: Prepare to bail out!” Tom and another crew member landed uninjured in the top of a tree near Aix-Sur-Cloie, Belgium. His amazing story is a journey of Providence in human form via a chain of Resistance Movement members who three months later delivered him to the neutral boundaries of Spain and ultimately back to England and Northern Ireland, his lucky white beach pebble still in his pocket.

La Petite Goffinet: The Story of a Name

In Belgium the first to come to provide shelter was Father Georges Goffinet, the village priest of Musson. Tom and his fellow crew member, Len, stayed hidden in the local Presbytery for ten days while preparations were made for their next move. This courageous young priest consistently endangered his own safety while assisting flight crews to escape and evade Nazi capture. The upper level window blinds of his home boldly displayed V (for Victory) signs. Tom Hutton and Father Goffinet quickly bonded in friendship and mutual respect. When the timing was right, Tom was moved to a home in the Belgian town of Sprimont where the DeFosse family with two small daughters, Marie and Adele, maintained safe space for evaders through a secret trap door leading to a cellar. Tom easily connected with this lively family, particularly Marie with whom he spent lonely hours teaching her English and learning French. In late June a guide arrived at the Defosse home with carefully planned instructions to move Tom into France and ultimately to Whitehall, England. Thanks to their dedicated support, on July 25, 1943, Tom sailed down the Belfast Lough and soon knocked on the door of his beloved home on Essex Street, Carrickfergus. After hugs and kisses all around, he reached in his pocket and handed Mamie the white beach pebble which had kept him safe.

Two years later in the early hours of July 10, 1945, Tom Hutton watched the sun rise as his new baby daughter was born. He and Mamie agreed to name their daughter Dawn Marie in celebration of her early morning arrival and in memory of Marie, the little girl in Sprimont. Later that same day, however, a letter with a Belgian stamp arrived at the Hutton home. Tom learned that shortly after his departure from Musson, a Nazi agent posing as a priest had betrayed Georges Goffinet. The young priest was arrested, condemned, and sent to the first in a series of concentration camps. Tom learned that Georges had subsequently been shot only hours before American troops had arrived to liberate the area. Tom and Mamie immediately decided that their baby daughter’s name should perpetuate his memory as well, and changed her name to Dawn Goffinet Marie Hutton. Today visitors to the town of Musson, Belgium, will find a bronze plaque on the presbytery wall bearing this inscription:

In honor of Georges Goffinet (1905-1945)
Priest of Musson to whom I owe my very existence. During the 2nd World War, in 1943, Father Goffinet hid my father, RAF Sergeant Tom Hutton for 10 days in the cellar of this presbytery, before helping his evasion and escape back to Northern Ireland where I was born two years later. I carry his name with pride.
Goffinet McLaren nee’ Hutton

Editor’s note: Copies of TOM: A Life Saved – Lives Lost are available at Litchfield Books.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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