On Saturday, September 25, 1999, the spirit of the RMS Titanic sailed into Ohio for “Titanic: Personal Stories,” a regional conference organized and sponsored by TIS members. This day was devoted to the personal stories of Titanic passengers as told by their descendants who have settled in the Cleveland area, as well as other parts of Ohio and the surrounding region.
The idea of this conference was the brainchild of TIS members Mary Ann Whitley of University Heights, Ohio, who served as chairperson, and Barb and Dave Shuttle of Erie, Pennsylvania. Through their collective efforts, they pulled together a planning committee to organize and coordinate the event. The planning committee was made up of the following TIS members: Mary Ann Whitley, Dave & Barb Shuttle, Kim Zuren-Bradac of Eastlake, OH, Chuck Otter of North Olmsted, OH, Janet White of Girard, OH and Jane Nummi of Painesville, OH.
The conference was held at the historic Old Tavern in Unionville, OH. Built in 1798 as a stagecoach stop and once used as part of the Underground Railway for slaves seeking freedom, the tavern is part of the National Register of Historic Places and is now a restaurant and meeting place. The rich history of the tavern and its atmosphere served as a perfect setting for this very special day.
The conference began at 9:00 a.m. with attendees registering as they arrived. A total of 65 people were in attendance. Each person received a packet of information that contained a schedule of the day’s events, an informative list of Titanic passengers traveling to Ohio and other Ohio Titanic connections, a handout about how one can personally become involved in public awareness and education on Titanic, a list of items available for our Chinese auction, Titanic stationery and information on the Toronto artifact exhibit which
had recently opened. Guests mingled, enjoyed a continental breakfast and viewed the items for sale at the Ship Shop table, as well as a variety of Titanic memorabilia donated by the planning committee for the Chinese auction to be held later in the evening. Proceeds from the Chinese auction are being donated towards the TIS restoration fund for the headstone of the Unknown child in Halifax. Dave Shuttle manned the Ship Shop table while Barb Shuttle and I sold tickets for the auction and specially made T-shirts commemorating the day. It was lots of fun to watch people enthusiastically buy tickets and plunk them into the cans hoping to be a winner.
The most popular item seemed to be a piece of wood and rusted cleat from Pier 54 (Carpathia’s dock) in New York. This was donated by Dave Shuttle who, after TIS’s 10th anniversary cruise salvaged the piece himself with the help of some friends, but THAT is a different story. One little boy, Daniel McGhee, age 8, returned to the auction table time and time again dragging his mother with him. “Please, just 2 more tickets?” I’d hear him say upon each visit. His mom would pull out her wallet and give him the money. He would study each item carefully and make his choices. When the auction was held he was the big winner of the day walking out the door with at least 5 or 6 items!
Mary Ann Whitley acted as the emcee and kicked off the day’s events by welcoming everyone, making last minute announcements and introducing the planning committee. After this, it was time for our speakers to begin.
The first speakers of the day were Janet White and Jane Nummi who presented us with the story of Elin & Pekka Hakkarainen, third-class Titanic passengers. Married just three short months, they were returning to America from their native Finland on their honeymoon trip. Jane’s husband, Gerald Nummi, was Elin’s son and a longtime TIS member. Together with Janet, he coauthored the book I’m Going to See What Has Happened, words of special meaning, as they were the last that Elin ever heard Pekka speak as he perished when the Titanic sank. Janet provided a wonderful presentation of Elin’s life before and after the Titanic tragedy and Jane shared with us what it was like to be related to a Titanic survivor. Her mother-in-law was forever haunted by Pekka’s last words and would rarely if ever speak of that night, only sharing the story with Jane once.
Marjorie Thomas gave an unforgettable account of how her mother, Thelma Thomas, and brother, Assed, survived the sinking. Traveling with ten other relatives, Thelma and Assed were third-class passengers on Titanic, traveling from Lebanon. Thelma’s brother, Charles, was also traveling with her and when they felt the jolt of the ship hitting the iceberg, Charles went to investigate. When he returned, he quickly gathered Thelma and then 4-month old Assed and together made their way to the boat deck. Thelma was thrown into a lifeboat without Assed while Charles held the boy in his arms. In a brave act Charles shouted “I don’t want to be saved, but will someone please take the baby?” A young woman said that she would, and Assed was saved and reunited with his mother in New York. Charles and the ten other relatives perished.
After our morning speakers finished their presentations, they displayed personal items on a table and were available for questions and answers. Jane displayed Elin’s jewelry and the only known wedding picture of Elin and Pekka, which were all in Elin’s purse on the Titanic. From noon until 1:00 p.m. lunch was served. We were provided with a wonderful assortment of lunchmeat for sandwiches and other items. Guests once again mingled and some went for a quick look around town, as there were several antique shops just a short walk from the tavern.
In the afternoon, we witnessed something very special. Members of survivor Frank Goldsmith’s family joined together to present his story. The reason this was such a special occasion is because Frank’s grandsons, Tom and Rich Goldsmith, who are cousins, were reunited for the first time in years. Rich was joined by his 11 year old son, Ross, and his father, Jim, and mother, Laurene. Tom’s children, Matt, age 9, and Christine, age 4, attended with him. The children met each other for the first time and played together side by side laughing and enjoying themselves. For those of us who knew what was going on, we really thought we were seeing something sort of magical and wondered if Frank was smiling down on us. Ross was the first to speak for the Goldsmith family and gave a very loving presentation about his great-grandfather.
He spoke of Frank with such emotion that many were moved to tears. He really was a trooper and hung in as long as he could before being overwhelmed himself. This was a very special tribute to Frank from a very special young man and I’m sure he would be proud! After Ross finished his presentation, Tom Goldsmith stepped in and shared with us memories of his grandfather. One story in particular that stands out was how Frank had always held out hope that the wreck of Titanic would be found and someday he would get back a cap gun that had been packed in a box and went down with the ship.
During Tom’s presentation, Marjorie Thomas made some points that she felt strongly about, so after Tom finished his speech they sat down for a one-on-one discussion. Rich and his father both spoke briefly and shared with us a book that was written by Frank titled Echoes in the Night. The book is not available at bookstores and can only be obtained through another Titanic society. It is interesting to note that the Goldsmith family receives no proceeds from the sale of this book.
Randy Lundi, grandson of survivor Anna Sophia Turja, gave an energetic speech about his grandmother. Anna was traveling as a third-class passenger on Titanic from Finland. Mr. Lundi was kind enough to share his memories of his grandmother with us, as well as some of Anna’s favorite music as sung by her family.
Chuck Otter brought us the story of his great-grandfather, Richard Otter, who was traveling second class on Titanic to America after a visit to England. Richard was lost in the sinking, leaving his wife, Kate, and a young son behind. Kate did not like to speak of her husband’s loss, but did say that if the sacrifice of his own life meant that another woman or child was saved, then he died a hero. After Kate’s death, a box was discovered in her attic which contained affidavits that certified that Richard had been on Titanic and did not survive, nor had his body been recovered. Chuck brought these documents with him and displayed them for everyone to see.
Mary Ann Whitley gave a talk about her family’s role in building the Titanic. Her grandfather, Edward B. Whitley, helped build the mighty turbine engine that helped power the ship. He supposedly nearly sailed on Titanic himself, but in a twist of fate decided to head to America beforehand so that he could watch the ship come into New York. Mary Ann took it upon herself to research her family’s history and involvement with Titanic and has discovered many surprises along the way, as well as being reunited with long lost family members. She recently visited Belfast with her cousin, Carol Nerychel, and visited the site where Titanic once stood and her grandfather so proudly worked.
Dave and Barb Shuttle were the last of our afternoon speakers. They presented their story of how a TV documentary changed their lives and the intimate link they now have to Titanic. Dave’s great-aunt Pearl had been romantically involved with Howard Irwin, a young man who was to travel back to the U.S. on Titanic with his best friend, Henry Sutehall. Howard never made it aboard Titanic, but Henry did – along with Howard’s belongings. Henry perished in the sinking and Howard’s belongings went down with the ship. In 1993, RMS Titanic, Inc. recovered a trunk that contained love letters written to Howard by Pearl. These letters, along with other items belonging to Howard, have been restored and displayed in the RMSTI traveling exhibit. Dave and Barb have authored a book entitled The Musician’s Trunk, which details their extensive research on the story of Pearl, Howard & Henry, and are now seeking a publisher.
When the afternoon speakers were finished, they, too, displayed family and personal items for everyone to take a closer look and chat with them. Maggie Bailey, of Columbus, Ohio, brought along her own special collection of Titanic-related items and shared them with everyone. Soon we were well into the evening and it was time for dinner. We were treated to an excellent buffet and a special surprise for dessert. A beautifully decorated Titanic cake made by the Willoughby Baking Co. was brought in and enjoyed by all. Afterwards the winners of the Chinese auction were drawn. The last speaker of the day was Bob Anderson, Vice President of Classic Worldwide Productions located in the Cleveland area.
Bob and his production company provided the video coverage for the cruise ship that accompanied the 1996 RMS Titanic, Inc. expedition to the Titanic wreck site. Last summer, he was once again asked to join RMSTI to serve as consultant, writer and producer for the Discovery Channel’s live broadcast from the wreck. Bob’s presentation was a fascinating insight on what it was like to work on these projects. Unfortunately, time did not allow him to complete his entire presentation and we had to bring the conference to a close.
So as the day ended, each of us carried something different away from this conference. Some proudly left with items won during the auction or decorations that had been on the table at which they had been seated. Some left with information they never knew before this day. Some found new friendships as hugs and e-mail addresses were exchanged. But in the end, we ALL left with the Titanic in our hearts.
One last note – through the sales of our commemorative T-shirts and ticket sales for the Chinese auction, we were able to raise $575 to donate to the TIS Unknown Child headstone restoration fund. Thanks to all who so generously participated!