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VOL. 123 | NO. 126 | Friday, June 27, 2008

Tom Lee Remembered for Heroic Act, Impact on City’s Future

By Bill Dries

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HERO CELEBRATED: Charmeal Alexander, center, Tom Lee’s great-great-niece, recently with other family members accepted honors from Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware. -- PHOTOS BY BILL DRIES

For a few minutes last week, one of the more complex political discussions in Memphis was put on hold by a simple story from 1925.

The Memphis City Council chambers was filled to near capacity with teachers and parents gathered by Memphis City Schools leaders to protest the council’s decision to cut funding to the system.

But for about 10 minutes the focus was on the heroism of a man 85 years ago who had little if any formal education and who saved 32 people from certain death in the Mississippi River even though he couldn’t swim.

The U.S. Coast Guard honored Tom Lee, who died of cancer in 1952, with the Coast Guard Certificate of Valor. Nearly two dozen descendants of Lee, from Memphis and the Atlanta area, accepted the honor. They then watched as Lee received a standing ovation from those who came to City Hall for the events of here and now.

“One life is what we all hope to be able to save in our time. For Tom Lee to do 32 in one night is absolutely remarkable,” local U.S. Coast Guard Commander Patrick Maguire told The Daily News. “It’s been very well-recognized locally and now he’s been nationally recognized as well.”

Silent and solo mission

Lee pulled 32 people from the Mississippi River south of Memphis on May 8, 1925, when the steamboat they were on capsized in the swift river current. Lee saw the boat, M.E. Norman, begin to shift and then flip as he was traveling back to Memphis on a smaller boat called Zev.

He turned the Zev around and began picking people out of the river. He made two or three trips to the shore to drop off those he rescued and even built a fire for the survivors. Seventeen others swam to safety without Lee’s help and 23 others died.

Those on the Norman were civil engineers and their families who were on an outing as part of a convention of engineers being held in Memphis. Many of the Memphians on board were among the city’s most prominent citizens.

Lee could not swim and after the rescue modestly gave some of the credit to the people he helped. He referred to them as “the sensiblest drowning folk I ever saw.” Those Lee rescued remembered him not saying a word as he pulled them out of the water and onto his small wooden boat.

By the next day, the rescue had begun its life as the city’s best-known river story. Lee had been an anonymous 39 year-old laborer when he saw the M.E. Norman capsize. By the next morning when he ended his overnight vigil cruising the river for more survivors, he was a hero.

Eight days after the rescue, Lee was in the White House Rose Garden shaking hands with the president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. The Engineers’ Club of Memphis bought Lee a house in North Memphis and set up a bank account to pay the taxes on it and provide for Lee and his wife. Lee was hired by the city as a sanitation worker.

The impact on the future when 32 lives are saved is incalculable, said Terry Watts, a great-great-nephew of Lee.

“It’s an individual who’s color-blind. He doesn’t think. He reacts. … Look at generations that go on because of it,” he said.

Watts and other family members are planning a family picnic to include the thousands of descendants of Lee as well as the descendants of those who survived because of his heroism.

Generations touched

Consider that one of those noticed by Lee floating in the river was a young woman in a bright yellow dress. Later, the woman would say she was convinced that it was the bright color that caught Lee’s eye as she floated helplessly in the swift river current.

That woman was Margaret Oates, later to become the wife of Hugo Dixon. Together, the couple became two of the city’s most visible philanthropists and patrons of the arts. When they died in 1974, their East Memphis home and grounds became the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

Maguire submitted Lee’s name for the overdue honor after a casual discussion about Memphis history with Coast Guard Lt. Gerald Thornton. The casual discussion led Thornton to find out more about a black man who went from nearly complete anonymity to an acclaim that was both unprecedented yet still bound by racial attitudes of the time.

“He was one of the first African-Americans hired by the city. … There’s a lot of things I didn’t know about,” Thornton said.

Lee’s descendants have kept the story alive over the past 80 years. Charmeal Alexander, Lee’s great-great-niece, especially was persistent in her quest for a new monument in Tom Lee Park that would include his image and negate the wording on the 1953 obelisk that proclaimed Lee a “very worthy Negro.” She came from the Atlanta area, where she now lives, for the Coast Guard honor.

But the park was her first stop, as it usually is whenever she is in town.

“Every time we come here we go to the park and whoever is in the park my husband and I will tell them the story,” Alexander said.

Honoring Lee also has been a way for Alexander to honor her father, Herbert Neely, who began the effort in the 1980s but died before the recent recognition including the new monument.

“Just because they’re gone, their spirit is still here,” Alexander said. “To have their dream come true through you, how much more glory can you receive after that? That’s really what counts in my heart, just to make sure that my father’s dream is actually living on.”

The Coast Guard honor is the latest in a series for Lee. The new monument was dedicated in 2006. Mansfield Street, in the Klondike section of North Memphis, where he and his wife lived after the 1925 rescue, also has had an honorary name change. And Ballet Memphis debuted an original work in 2004 based on the river rescue.

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