Tom Lee's story remembered 94 years after river rescue

By Published: May 13, 2019 11:53 PM CT

Cathy Hidinger Kelly remembers the rare occasions when her father would take a napkin at dinner and draw a line representing the Mississippi River.

It was one of the few times Leroy Hidinger Jr. talked about the river boat ride he went on in 1925 when he was 5 years old. The boat, M.E. Norman, capsized south of Memphis with members of the Engineers Club, their families and other engineers in town for a convention on board.

“He would draw the route that the boat would take and tell us exactly what happened,” she recalled Wednesday, 94 years to the day after the incident in which Tom Lee rescued 32 of the people thrown into the treacherous current of the Mississippi River. Another 25 drowned.

The gathering at Beale Street Landing was to commemorate the incident and honor Lee by bringing together his descendants with the descendants of those he rescued as part of the city’s bicentennial observances.

But Lee’s story and legacy is rarely that simple.

While there weren’t any descendants of those Lee rescued, there were present day leaders of the Engineers Club, elected officials and other dignitaries. And there was a connection with the Hidinger family even though Leroy Hidinger was rescued that day by his father.

Lee was a frequent visitor to the Hidinger home on Vinton Avenue. After the rescue, the Engineers Club bought Lee and his wife a house on Mansfield Street in Klondike and paid the taxes for the rest of his life. The city also gave Lee a job as a sanitation worker and the route Lee and his crew had included the Hidinger home.

As the crew worked, Hidinger, who died in 2013, remembered that Lee would come inside and they would have cookies and lemonade and talk about that day on the river as well as other things.

“When I wasn’t in school during the summer, I would see Tom Lee probably twice a week,” Hidinger said in a 1984 interview.

“There just seemed to be a comradeship that developed over the years where we were real good friends,” he said. “When he found out that I had been on the Norman and my father was on the Norman we developed a friendship.”

The interview conducted by the University of Memphis History Department is in the special collections section of the University of Memphis library.

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“He didn’t like boats. He didn’t like water. There weren’t any vacations to the beach," said Hidinger’s son, John Hidinger. “Other than that, he was really the kind of man who put it behind him and moved on. He honestly didn’t like talking about it with us that much.”

Lee appears to have been much the same. He said the people he rescued where “the sensiblest drowning folks” he had ever seen. And Lee answered the question about why he did what he did by saying he just did it without much thought and because it was the right thing to do.

Several generations of Lee’s family from senior citizens to newborns were present for Wednesday’s honors. Some of the youngest occasionally stopped in front of a video screen to take in a sepia-toned picture of Lee in a canvas coat at about the age he was at the time of the rescue – 39. Lee’s countenance looks tired but the eyes strong – as if it was taken shortly after he got back to Memphis where he was the closest thing to an instant hero in the 1920s.

“The children, the grandkids – it’s very important that we keep doing it for them,” said Charmeal Neely Alexander, the great-great-niece of Lee. “Our parents did it for us. Memphis is in many of our hearts.”

Neely Alexander followed up on her father’s efforts in the 1980s to call attention to and honor Lee. Those efforts began in the 1990s and led to the 2006 monument to Lee that depicts Lee reaching from a boat to rescue a man clinging to a piece of wood in the river. It was important to her to have a depiction of Lee showing he was an African-American man.

Another image of Lee taken about a week after the rescue in the Rose Garden of the White House shaking hands with President Calvin Coolidge shows Lee wearing a suit and tie – the best indication of how Lee went from the obscurity of an African-American laborer to the hero at the center of what would be the city’s best-known river story for decades.

But there were shadows in the recognition.

He was always quoted in dialect – the way he said words was spelled out phonetically instead of just the words he said. Press coverage emphasized his docile nature and touted him as an example of black subservience.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland referred to Tom Lee as Mr. Lee, a title that for all of the accolades he received wasn’t used for African-Americans no matter how formal the setting.

“I hope you looked at the current of the river when you walked in and imagined somebody who didn’t know how to swim trying to rescue those people,” Strickland said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Memphis River Parks Partnership president Carol Coletta called Lee an “everyday hero.”

“When the moment came to step up, he stepped up,” she said. “He was exhibiting the greatest bravery and generosity when the moment came to do so.”

In the riverside park named for Tom Lee after his death in 1952, the hardware of the Beale Street Music Festival still obscured the two monuments to Lee in the park, one from 2006 and another from the 1950s that refers to Lee as a “very worthy Negro.”

“The text of the old version is probably not politically correct in this day and time,” said Rob Hunter, treasurer of the Engineer’s Club. “I don’t think we’re really hung up on it. The new monument depicts the scene of what happened very well, I think.”

On the other border of the park Wednesday, the Mississippi River was on the rise again and expected to go above flood stage for the second time since March.

Lee was piloting his small boat called “Zev” back to Memphis from ferrying passengers to some place south of Memphis. He passed the Norman and turned back just in time to see the Norman capsize. Without hesitation, he turned around and began pulling those in the river onto his small boat.

Over the decades, some exact details of the story have either faded or were never known for sure. No one knows how many trips Lee made to the shore with those he pulled from the water – only that there were several.

David Allan Clark, the sculptor who created the 2006 statue is a stickler for such details.

Clark’s process for that and other statues is to sculpt a body and then add clothes and other elements to it. Clark searched for some photo or description of Zev and found none, settling on a generic small boat.

Clark searched for any full-body shots to give him an idea of Lee’s physical build. Ultimately, he modeled the likeness of Lee on the picture of Lee taken shortly after the rescue and blended that with some elements of James Herbert Neely, Charmeal Neely Alexander’s father.


Tom Lee Jim Strickland Carol Coletta Leroy Hidinger Charmeal Neely Alexander
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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