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VOL. 130 | NO. 90 | Friday, May 8, 2015

90 Years On

Tom Lee’s heroism still stands in river lore

By Bill Dries

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Somewhere in the University of Memphis Libraries’ Special Collections section is a cassette – a relic itself – that holds the voice of Harry Wiersema recalling his time living by the Mississippi River in Memphis.

Wiersema, interviewed at his Knoxville home in 1984 by U of M history professor Charles Crawford, speaks on the tape with the voice of a 92-year-old man about the event that changed his life forever after nearly ending it.

Friday, May 8, marks the 90th anniversary of Tom Lee rescuing 32 people in a capsized steamboat on the Mississippi River. A second monument to Lee was erected in Tom Lee Park in 2006.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

Wiersema was among the survivors when the steamboat M.E. Norman capsized on the Mississippi River south of Memphis on May 8, 1925 – 90 years ago.

The last known survivor of the Norman, Leroy Hidinger Jr., died in 2013.

The tragedy is best known for the dramatic rescue of 32 people by Tom Lee, who was returning to Memphis on a much smaller boat when he saw the Norman capsize behind him.

Wiersema, a civil engineer and architect, had been sitting on the bottom of the Norman with others on a sightseeing tour when it sank with a whoosh of air and a sudden burst of water that carried him far under the muddy waters.

He had just enough time to take a deep breath.

“Going down, I was thinking, ‘Well here’s the end of my life. I’m probably never going to get to the surface because it’s an awful way down,’” Wiersema said. “‘I’m not married. I don’t have any children. I don’t have any close relatives. I’m almost 30 years old, and if I ever get out of this, I’m going to get married and raise a family and have some friends.’”

Wiersema, who had come to Memphis in 1914 to help build the Harahan Bridge, lived in a cabin he and another engineer built where the Church of the River now stands. He was an excellent swimmer who regularly swam across the river at Memphis, and he didn’t fight the downward push when the Norman capsized.

Wiersema estimated he went down about 80 feet in a part of the river that was probably 100 feet deep before he began to push for the surface.

“All the way up, I was wondering what I would do if I were spared,” Wiersema said. “It was pretty close. I don’t know how much longer I could have gone.”

When he surfaced with a gasp, he was no longer alone.

“I saw people around me – some with life preservers, some with planks,” he recalled.

He also saw a small boat with a man on board, pulling people from the river as they drifted helplessly in the swift current.


“You could see Tom Lee picking up people,” Wiersema recalled. “You could see him take them to shore. You could see him go back and get some more people. It was very obvious,

“It was a small boat. He couldn’t pick up very many … and he seemed to be very smart about what he was doing. He didn’t overload the boat.”

Decades after the tragedy, other survivors that Lee rescued recalled that he said nothing as he pulled them and others from the river, took them to a sandbar and built a fire.

The incident also changed Lee’s life. Word of the disaster and rescue spread quickly after some of the survivors reached a Mississippi cabin with a telephone and called Memphis for help.

Lee lived the next 27 years in a house on Mansfield Street in Klondike paid for by the Engineers Club of Memphis. The city rewarded him with a job as a sanitation worker, and two years after his death changed the name of Astor Park to Tom Lee Park in his honor.

The obelisk monument that followed declared him “a very worthy Negro.” In 2006, a new monument was built that depicted Lee in a boat rescuing a well-dressed man clinging to a piece of wood. It is encircled by 32 lights, one for each life he saved.

Lee, who 20 days after the incident was in the Rose Garden at the White House shaking hands with President Calvin Coolidge, credited those he rescued with being the “sensiblest drowning folks” he had ever encountered.

Two men sharing a wooden plank with Wiersema were the last two Lee rescued, Wiersema said. He and Lee talked briefly on the water, with Lee establishing that Wiersema could swim to the bank.

He walked upstream on a sandy bank before coming across a group of four to five others, including an unconscious child. Wiersema shook him upside down and began chest compressions.

“I got a good breath out of him and I thought, “I’m going to save his life sure as could be,’” he recalled with a pause 60 years later. “But there never came another breath.”

The child was one of 23 people who died.

Back in Memphis, Wiersema remembered a love interest, Ethel, and his pledge to change his life.

“We were married two or three weeks after that,” Wiersema recalled as his granddaughter listened and a persistent cat meowed in the background. “It was a turning point in my life. I started a married life and bought a house. It changed my whole life.”

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