Image courtesy New York Times
Some events happened so long ago that it seems there can't be any possible link to the present. But this week, the last known survivor of the sinking near Memphis of the steamboat M.E. Norman — a tragedy that made rescuer Tom Lee a national hero — died in Memphis. Leroy Hidinger Jr. was 93.
Many stories have been told about the Norman disaster, but I'll sum it up here. On the morning of May 8, 1925, a contingent of engineers attending a convention in Memphis boarded the riverboats M.E. Norman and Choctaw for an inspection tour of bluff repair work along the Mississippi River, just south of Memphis. The two boats carried more than 150 passengers downriver to the Helena area, and later headed back upriver to return the passengers to Memphis.
Only the Choctaw, steaming ahead of the other boat, made it. For reasons that still aren't quite clear, the Norman became unsteady. It began to take on water, listed to starboard, and then abruptly rolled over in the river. Many passengers were trapped inside the screened-in cabin. The others were thrown into the river.
One of the passengers that day was 5-year-old Leroy Hidinger. In an interview with reporters years later, he recalled: "My father, grandfather, and grandmother I went to get in the car [that morning]. And before Daddy could start the automobile, I jumped out of it, and cried, 'Daddy, I don't want to go. The boat's going to sink!' But my Daddy said, 'The boat's not going to sink. You're just needlessly scared, and it's all in your head."
Unfortunately, young Hidinger was right. His grandmother was one of the more than 30 victims of the disaster. The boy and his father were among those rescued by Tom Lee. (I never knew what happened with the grandfather; maybe he stayed behind.)
Lee was employed by a company doing levee repair work, and had been out on the river that day in an open boat, the Zev, powered only by a tiny outboard motor. He had been close behind the Norman when he saw it roll over, and steered his boat among the passengers, who were struggling to stay afloat in the cold water, burdened down with their clothing. Lee made more than half a dozen trips, pulling drowning men and women from the water, carrying them to the shore, and returning for more. He even helped them build fires so they could stay warm until help arrived. His deeds were even more courageous when you consider this: Lee could not swim. He eventually rescued more than 30 people that day; some 40 others drowned.
Lee never made much of his actions that day. He told reporters,, "I guess I didn't do any more than anyone else would have done in my place."
As a reward for his heroism, the Engineers Club of Memphis bought Lee a house on North Mansfield (still standing today) and landed him a considerably safer job with the Sanitation Department (it was probably the best they could do in 1925). A more fitting memorial came after his death in 1952, when the city renamed Astor Park at the foot of Beale Street Tom Lee Park. For years, a granite shaft in the park paid a somewhat awkwardly worded tribute to "A Very Worthy Negro," but a more fitting bronze memorial of Lee rescuing a Norman passenger went up a few years ago.
And what about young Leroy Hidinger? He had a remarkable life, by all accounts. He earned a degree in commerce from Ole Miss and studied law at the University of Virginia. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and afterwards continued his law studies and earned his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Memphis. That, apparently, wasn't enough, because he also earned an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1950, he opened Cavalier Cleaners here, which he owned and operated for the next 60 years or so.
One final comment, while I'm at it. Another well-known Memphis family was involved with the Norman disaster. One of the passengers also rescued by Tom Lee was a young woman named Margaret Oates. Years later, she married cotton merchant Hugo Dixon. Their grand estate on Park Avenue became The Dixon Gallery and Gardens.