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Friday, November 16, 2007

Tom Lee Park

One of our city tour stops during Charlotte’s visit was a lovely spot at the river, Tom Lee Park. It’s tucked between the banks of the Mighty Mississippi and Riverside Drive – a curving street, bound by Dogwood trees which is breathtaking in the spring. The park is a mile-long strip that never exceeds 400 feet in width. Up on the bluff overlooking the park and the river are multi-million dollar, luxury homes and condos that belong to the likes of native Memphian (and East High grad) Cybill Shepherd.

It’s a pretty park friendly to walkers, joggers and roller-bladers and provides probably the best walk-along view of the river. I suspect, however, that many in Memphis have enjoyed visits to the park without knowing who Tom Lee was and why the park bears his name. We’re fixing that.

In the spring of 1925 when racial lines were still drawn very tightly, Tom Lee, an African-American resident of Memphis, steered his 28-foot skiff upriver toward the city after delivering an official to Helena, AR, also on the river. About 15 miles south of Memphis, Lee saw a steamboat, the M.E. Norman, which carried members of the local Engineers Club, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and their families. As he watched more carefully, he saw the steamboat capsizing into the swift currents.

Without a second thought and with no regard for the fact that he couldn’t swim, Lee turned his skiff toward the men, women and children being tossed into the dangerous waters. In total, he made five trips to shore, saved 32 lives and continued searching the river well into the darkness.

Knowing that big river as we do back here, the thought of a non-swimmer stretching over the side of a small boat and dragging in just one struggling person presents a frightening picture. But surely, Mr. Lee loaded his boat as full as he could each time –noting what could become too full and dump them all into the fast-running river – and he did it repeatedly. Because of his bravery and diligence, only 23 people were lost that day. Without him, all would have certainly perished.

As an expression of gratitude, the Memphis Engineers Club raised enough money to buy a house for Lee and his wife. Two years after his death in 1952, the riverfront park was named in his honor and a granite obelisk was erected with an explanatory plaque.
On our visit a week ago, we also saw an amazing statue which neither Mike nor I had ever seen before. The work depicts Tom Lee leaning out of his skiff to rescue another survivor. The photo above is a close-up. The entire work is life-size and includes an outstretched victim clutching a piece of wood and with his arm straining over his head, reaching for Tom Lee. The victim’s mouth is open in a scream. Their fingers are inches apart. It’s a beautiful, moving piece of sculpture. The three of us circled it more than once, and I took Tom Lee’s hand.

Besides giving daily pleasure to Memphians year-round, the park is the site of the Memphis is May sunset symphony and the Beale St. music festival. The Today Show also sets up each year to cover the barbecue cook-off attracting hundreds of competitors from around the world (but probably not Texas).

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