Tom Lee, working for a levee repair contractor along the Mississippi, was returning from Helena, Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee, on the afternoon of May 8, 1925. Alone and operating the company’s motorboat, he came to Cow Island Bend 16 miles south of the city when he saw the steamboat M. E. Norman. Passing it on the left, he happened to look back a half-mile upriver to see the vessel had begun listing and the wheel had stopped. The steamboat suddenly capsized but Mr. Lee had already turned around, heading back to the scene.
The Norman was a 114 foot boat, included a crew of 10 and was bringing several engineers and their families out to enjoy the River while they dined and surveyed project sites along the riverbanks. Listening to lectures, most of the engineers were below decks at the time and when the Norman capsized it disoriented everyone, trapping most below. Mr. Lee made five trips to shore, saving 32 people.
Twenty days later, he was honored at the White House by President Coolidge for his quick thinking and heroic rescue. The people of Memphis have placed a Memorial to him in their city, which reads, in part: “He has a finer monument than this–an invisible one – a monument of kindliness, generosity, courage and bigness of heart – his good deeds were scattered everywhere that day and into eternity.” Here, the President is publicly respecting the selfless service of a brave American. The political fallout for so public an endorsement mattered not to him.