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VOL. 121 | NO. 205 | Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Worthy Tribute

Tom Lee to be honored with new monument today

By Andy Meek

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BLOOD AND WATER: Sunday, relatives of local hero Tom Lee gather along the Mississippi River for a reunion near a 50-year-old marker in Lee's memory. The local hero is slated to get a new memorial today. -- Photo By Andy Meek

On a balmy Sunday afternoon, assembled Downtown for what might have appeared an ordinary family reunion, about 40 people chatted, laughed and squeezed together for photos, the Mississippi River rolling softly behind them.

Displayed above the crowd was an old family photo of Tom Lee, their famous relative for whom a granite monument was erected more than 50 years ago near the spot where they now stood. It is that monument - rather, the heroic feat that led to its construction - that brought the family together this week.

Thursday, some of them will attend a ceremony hosted by the Riverfront Development Corp. dedicating a more detailed and artistic memorial to Lee, whose rescue of 32 people from drowning in the Mississippi in 1925 by now should be common knowledge among Memphians.

After all, tens of thousands flock each year to the park named in Lee's honor - where the current monument stands - for the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, or just to walk, jog and rollerblade. As family members posed for pictures last weekend, a couple walked a dog and teenagers played catch nearby.

A family affair

But more than 80 years after Lee - a levee worker who couldn't swim - used his fishing boat to ferry the 32 people to shore, family members insist his is a story that still needs telling. And the new monument, which will feature a larger-than-life image of Lee saving one of the victims, is the culmination of years of lobbying by his descendants.

Designed by artist David Alan Clark, the piece will stand in a new plaza just south of the current obelisk, which will remain on the north end of the park.

"As far back as I can remember, this is what my daddy wanted," said Carlita Neely-Hale, a great-great-niece of Lee who lives in Denver, Colo. Her late father - Lee's great- nephew - was born on Oct. 19, which is, coincidentally, the date on which the roughly 13-foot sculpture will be unveiled.

Neely-Hale, a homemaker and mother of two, won't get to make the trip to Memphis to see the new memorial to her forefather as soon as other family members will. She's due to give birth in a few weeks.

But she is planning on traveling, perhaps this spring, to see firsthand the statue for which she and her sister, Charmeal Neely-Alexander, contributed opinions to the final design and the kind of passion only a relative could give.

A worthy man

Tomorrow will mark the official dedication of the interpretive artwork by Clark, who is from Wyoming.

Dorchelle Spence, director of communications for the RDC, said the bronze statue would depict Lee leaning out of his small boat, bending toward a victim reaching for his hand.

Thirty-two lights around the memorial will represent each of the survivors, part of a group of engineers and their families who were in town for the Mid-South Society of Civil Engineers convention.

Others from the boat crash swam to safety. Some did not survive.

As thanks for the rescue, the Memphis Engineers Club raised money to buy a house for Lee and his wife that still stands in the Klondyke neighborhood off Jackson Avenue. He was nominated for the Carnegie Hero medal, met President Calvin Coolidge and was given a job locally as a garbage collector.

The current monument, built in the early 1950s, bears no image of Lee and describes the acts of a man praised - or rather, slighted - on the statue as "a very worthy Negro."

'Waiting to exhale'

Aside from the artwork dedication Thursday, the Overton High School choir will perform a song with lyrics contributed by former Tennessee poet laureate Helen Thomas Allison. The U.S. Coast Guard and members of the Memphis City Council also will pay their respects.

"The memorial that we had designed for Tom Lee Park depicts his actual heroic act of saving people's lives, so that people better understand what Tom Lee did and why it is that we have a city park named in his honor," Spence said.

"Tom Lee is an important figure in Memphis' history, and he's a hero that few people know about."

Plans to dedicate the new, more enhanced memorial have been under discussion for years. Neely-Alexander is one of the family members who led the fight.

"This is kind of like a waiting-to-exhale type of moment, to finally get here," she said.

The memory and shared connection to Tom Lee always has been a touchstone for the already close-knit family.

"We're not only family, but we have history," she said. "Even though a lot of doors got shut in our face in the beginning, and it's not like the family had money to go do our own statue. We just wanted the city to recognize this, and it just so happened the RDC stepped up."

Just do it

The creation and installation of a new memorial was a collaboration between the RDC the Memphis UrbanArt Commission. The current monument was damaged in the summer 2003 windstorm and subsequently moved by the RDC.

Nevertheless, family members continued their push for a new memorial, a journey that led them to this past Sunday, taking pictures around the old memorial, with the sound of the river rolling behind them.

If it appeared an ordinary family reunion, the gathering preceded a much-anticipated, extraordinary tribute, finally, to the man who is reported to have said of his actions that day, "Because I seen something that had to be done and I did it."

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