TO protect the tourist trade, they tried to keep it a secret when it struck the Spanish resort of San Sebastian in the February. By May, the British Grand Fleet had 10,000 cases and couldn't put to sea. Two American soldiers had it one day; by the next, 716 of their comrades in their Georgia camp were ill.

As many as 100 million people all over the world may have died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. Certainly its death toll far exceeded the vast numbers who perished in the First World War, which ended that year. In the USA more succumbed than that country has lost in all the wars it has fought, before and since the pandemic. Philadelphia's 36-place morgue was overwhelmed by 711 deaths in one day.

The great flu may even have changed the course of world history. General Ludendorff's massive summer offensive in France had beem on the verge of winning the war for the Germans until thousands of his soldiers were hit by the virus.

And in a County Durham village, the likely course of the life of the two-year-old son of a collier and his wife was dramatically changed. The mining communities of the North-East were especially hard hit and in Helmington Row, near Crook, young Fred lost both his parents to the scourge.

His plight and that of his two sisters touched the hearts of the Rev Thomas Henry Hurrell, vicar of nearby Hunwick, and his wife Laura Edith. They adopted the toddler and became guardians of the two girls. The lad was not after all to spend his working life down the pit, as probably had seemed pre-destined.

Fred Hurrell died last month at Richmond, aged 85. His adoptive parents, already well into middle-age when they took him in, lived long enough to instil into him their own gentleness and concern for others. They sent him to good schools, the last of which, the late lamented Scorton private grammar, would invite him to its big occasions _ especially when he lived at nearby Richmond after becoming editor of the Darlington and Stockton Times in 1978.

Laura died when Fred was eight but her husband, whom the Church had by then moved to South Shields, lived just long enough to see their boy begin a journalism career there which also included the editorships of the Northumberland Gazette and the Durham Advertiser. At Durham he became especially well-known: president of this, chairman of that, on committees of the cathedral, university, hospitals and much else.

Fred's sudden change of direction in his infancy touches on a fascinating subject: is it nature or nuture which most shapes our lives? His good manners, politeness and generosity are to be found in many of humble birth and journalism has fewer class barriers than most trades (but miners are practical men and it may have been from his natural father that he inherited toy and furniture-making skills). Nor are the commissioned ranks closed to mere state grammar-school boys (taking it for granted that an 11-year-old Fred would have won a scholarship from the village school and assuming that his birth parents could have afforded the necessary uniform).

But the odds against him becoming a Royal Marines captain in the 1939-45 war were surely shortened by the education given him by the Hurrells.

And where else but at such as Scorton would he have acquired the ease with which to tell, with charming self-deprecation, his best war story? The one about the bawling-out he gave to a commanding figure on the bridge of a ship which nearly ran down his smaller craft in the confusion of the Normandy landings; the gold-braided one, he realised a femtosecond too late, was General de Gaulle.

Straight from Helmington Row, probably roughly spoken, would he have made such an impression on young Marjorie Nicholls, a languages teacher from Yorkshire, had there anyway been the coincidence of her and the again-orphaned apprentice reporter choosing the same digs in Shields? They married in Sheffield Cathedral in 1939.

Alongside Marjorie at his funeral last week at St Agatha's, Easby, Richmond the ancient church where he had been a devout worshipper and lay preacher, were their children. Anne Montgomery left journalism with The Northern Echo to become a talented teacher; Air Vice-Marshal David Hurrell CB won the Air Force Cross as an RAF pilot; and Martin Hurrell, managing director of a computer software company. Not many couples buried young at Helmington Row can claim such a successful trio of grandchildren, I suggest.

Fred told me once that he had two heroes; but it was clear that Yehudi Menuhin, a choice representative of his lifelong love of music, was in second place to the 1918 Vicar of Hunwick, 'my adopted father, to whom I owe so much.'

This most cultured of journalists, of course, also had a great love of words. So I am sure he would enjoy my discovery that flu, the scourge that robbed him of one set of parents but delivered him into the care of such caring adoptive ones, gets its name from the Italian influenza, influence.

There are at least two explanations of this. In the 16th century, astronomers in Italy noted that the disease seemed to run to a seasonal timetable, influenced they believed by conjunctions of the planets and stars (in our own time, Sir Fred Hoyle suggested that outbreaks are linked to sunspot activity). Two centuries later, according to another version, Italian victims of flu called it influenza di freddo, influence of the cold.

Either way, it is movingly appropriate: flu can be said to have been a decisive influence in the life of Fred Hurrell, newspaperman and gentleman.