In the middle of the night on Aug. 31, 1997, Fred Callow of Northhampton, England, awoke with a start.
Inexplicably, he felt the need to turn on the radio on a nearby nightstand. After adjusting the volume, he heard the broadcaster say, “We are expecting an announcement from the hospital and a communiqué from the palace.”
Fred nudged his wife. “Wake up,” he whispered. “I fear the Queen Mum has passed.”
But it wasn’t the Queen Mother who died that night — it was Diana, Princess of Wales.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic car crash in Paris that killed Diana, 36; her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed; and their driver.
As a longtime employee of Althorp, the ancestral home of Diana’s family, the Spencers, Fred knew the princess well. I had the good fortune to talk with him during a tour of the estate in rural England.
The year after Diana’s death, her brother Charles, the Earl of Spencer, opened a museum at Althorp dedicated to his sister’s memory. The estate is also the burial site of the late princess.
When tickets to the museum went on sale in January 1998, I, along with hundreds of thousands of other callers, jammed the phone lines for a chance to buy a $15 ticket. Nearly 10,000 calls a minute poured in from across the globe. In mere days, 152,000 tickets were sold for limited entrance to the exhibit from July 1, Diana’s birthday, to Aug. 30, 1998.
I was stunned when an operator actually answered my call. Unexpectedly, I was planning a trip to England.
Young people today may not remember or understand the worldwide fascination with the iconic Diana. Her beauty and style were obvious attractions, but she was also admired for her tireless support of multiple charities.
When she died, Diana was mourned around the world. The televised funeral was viewed by an estimated 2.5 billion people.
Visitors to the museum at Althorp have the opportunity to see the Earl’s handwritten notes from the euology he gave at the funeral. Also on display are a range of memorabilia including Diana’s childhood toys and her famous wedding dress.
The gravesite is on a small island in the middle of an ornamental lake and is viewable from a walking path. Only family is allowed on the island; Prince William, his wife Kate and their two children, along with Prince Harry, visited there last month.
I recall thinking the museum’s exhibits were very tasteful. There were no tacky souvenirs and the local residents pretty much kept to themselves.
But the lasting memory for me was Mr. Callow, the guide at Althorp. In his 60s or maybe early 70s, Fred shared his thoughts as we walked out the manor door together at the end of the day.
“I don’t know why I woke up (that night),” he said. “The next day we all came here.”
He supported the Earl’s decision to have Diana buried at the estate rather than in the family vault in the small village church, a controversial topic at the time.
“Diana loved it here,” he said. “It’s very right that she should be here.”
The longtime Althorp associate described the future mother of the King of England as an ordinary person.
“When she would come home from school on holiday, she would ride her bike down the road and stop to talk with the neighbors at the garden wall.”
Fred’s version of Diana was very different from the glamorous princess adored by millions. He grieved for an innocent, often insecure, little girl.
He added, “Princess Diana would have been very shocked at the reaction to her death – the respect and reverence that’s been paid to her. She had no idea how much she was loved.”
Today, Diana’s memory lives on at Althorp and in the hearts of many as “the people’s princess” — even two decades later.