Bretton Woods, N.H. — CELWYN BALL of Moncton, New Brunswick, actually heard him speak in North Africa during the war. A few others remember hunkering down next to a radio in England, enthralled by the rolling cadences of his timeless speeches. Most of them just know him from the familiar photographs - the round, bow-tied figure, the ever-present cigar in one hand, flashing the famous V-for-victory sign with the other. But however they know him, they all feel they know him.
``He,'' of course, is Winston Churchill, the man who took the helm as prime minister of Great Britain during World War II and, with tenacity, courage, and inspiration, guided his country through its grueling fight.
``They'' are the members of the International Churchill Society, who gathered recently in this Victorian resort at the foot of New Hampshire's Mt. Washington to mark the society's 20th anniversary. For two days they listened to scholars and other experts talk about Churchill's life; at a black-tie dinner they were regaled by Alistair Cooke, who covered Churchill as a young journalist.
The more than 1,300 society members are scholars, historians, students, philatelists, collectors, bibliophiles, and Churchill enthusiasts from many other walks of life. The society has ``chapters'' in the United States, Britain, and Canada, and ``branches'' in Australia and New Zealand.
``I like to say we're a lay organization with academic pretensions,'' says Richard Langworth, the founder and executive director of the society. Mr. Langworth, a writer, seller of antiquarian books, and Churchill enthusiast who lives in Contoocook, N.H., is given to quoting Churchillian epigrams with a shake of the jaw, a tilt of the head, and the distinctive growl.
(He recalls Churchill's comment on his party switching - he went from the Tories to the Liberals, and back again: ``Anyone can rat. It takes a certain amount of fortitude to re-rat.'')
``No other association matches our single-minded devotion to the study of Winston Churchill, warts and all,'' Langworth says, back in his own voice. ``No other body has our single, overriding goal: to foster knowledge of Churchill's life and works....''
The society is not just trying to preserve Churchill's memory, though. More tangibly, it is working hard to preserve his words.
``One of the great things about Churchill was that not only did he make history,'' says Harvey Greisman, a member from Fairfield, Conn., ``but he was able to write about his role in history as it was going on.''
But much of the Churchillian oeuvre is in danger of being lost. Already, many of the titles are out of print. So several years ago, Langworth wrote in the society's quarterly publication, Finest Hours, that ``no one is making a serious effort to preserve [Churchill's] 8 million spoken and written words from vanishing from our schools, libraries, and thoughts. Isn't it time someone did?'' In 1985, the society's directors voted to establish the Churchill Literary Foundation.
Already the foundation has achieved its first goal. It has secured the financing for 10 more ``companion volumes'' - containing letters, documents, and other primary-source material - to Churchill's official biography. (The eighth and final volume of the biography - begun by Churchill's son, Randolph, and completed by historian Martin Gilbert - has just been published.) The companion-volumes project had been abandoned partway through the writing of the biography.
The next large publishing project, a joint venture between the foundation and the Claremont Institute in California, is an instant-access ``electronic edition'' of all of Churchill's written and spoken words, stored on compact disc.
The society is also committed to ``republication in affordable form'' of many early books now out of print. Eight long-extinct titles are scheduled for publication.
Some members are engaged in their own projects to keep alive the Churchill flame. Merry Ness Alberigi, of San Anselmo, Calif., is at work on a book about Churchill's more than 500 paintings. Naomi Gottlieb, of Dallas, dreams of putting together a presentation about Churchill for schoolchildren. ``Kids need to hear about courage and persistence,'' she says.
Churchill has a way of captivating people. Mr. Ball, chairman of the society's New Brunswick chapter, says he and his fellow soldiers in North Africa ``weren't very impressed when we heard he was coming. Politicians, they should stay in England, we thought. But then we heard him speak. He stood there on the back of a truck, took off his hat, and started talking. We knew this was our man. He became something more than a politician. He became a leader.''
``The thing that really grabs people most about Churchill,'' Langworth says, ``is his humanity. He was simply a large human being. He was so emotional: They'd play the national anthem and tears would stream down his face. People would say, `He's one of us.'''
For members of the International Churchill Society, he still is.