Memphis 200: The history of Tom Lee Park and the river rescue that created a hero

Bravery on the Mississippi

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Tom Lee Park is ground zero for Beale Street Music Festival. Thousands visit the park each year, but what do you know about the park’s namesake?

In celebration of Memphis’ 200th birthday, we’ll tell you the story of a daring river rescue and an unlikely hero.

Charmeal Neal grew up hearing about her great, great, great uncle, Tom Lee, from her father and aunt.

“They just made sure that the family knew our history,” she said. “Yeah, it’s a family thing.”

It’s a proud family history that enters on the extraordinary story of an ordinary man.

During the 1920s in Memphis, Tom Lee, a river worker, and his battered wooden skiff, 'the Zev," traveled many miles on the Mississippi River.

“Going down river to Helena, back and forth about 70 miles on this current, delivering packages and people to Helena, back and forth,” said Jimmy Ogle, historian. “And he could not swim.”

“Absolutely, and for him to do that, you know, he wanted to make sure his family was taken care of, so apparently he took the first job he could,” said Neely.

On May 8, 1925 near Cow Island Bend roughly 10 to 15 miles downstream from Memphis, 39-year-old Tom Lee spotted disaster as he headed home from Helena, Arkansas. A Corps of Engineers steamer called the M.E. Norman capsized while on its way back to Memphis, dumping 72 passengers and crew into the cold, churning current.

“You’re in clothes, you don’t have a life vest on probably, struggling against the current,” said Ogle.

Twenty-three people died that day, but Lee saved even more.

“And individually, he saved over 32 lives with his boat going back and forth pulling them to safety,” said Ogle.

“You know, for you to save people and bring them to the banks of the river and cover them and build a fire,” said Neely.

Even after help arrived hours later, Lee and “the Zev” stayed through the night looking for bodies. When news spread about the mysterious black man who rescued so many, the unassuming Lee became a reluctant celebrity.

“He actually got invited to the White House and met President Calvin Coolidge,” said Ogle.

Lee received plenty of awards and proclamations, but when asked what he really wanted he said a home, which although in serious disrepair now still stands in the Klondike neighborhood.

“And so the Society of Engineers and I believe the Commercial Appeal put an effort together, raised enough money to get him a house up on Mansfield Street in North Memphis for he and his wife, Margaret,” said Ogle.

“They had a garden and they planted flowers,” said Neely. “And each year the Corps of Engineers made sure that his Christmases were great.”

Lee later got a job with the Sanitation Department and at his retirement 20 years later got double the ordinary pension.

Lee died in 1952 but his memory lives on. The park on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi was renamed for him in 1954. It’s home to the most noticeable marker of his heroism, a bronze sculpture erected in 2006.

“This is a place where people can come and just be at one and be at peace,” said Neely. “It tells you what type of person he is. So, as me, I just try to live my life the same way. Who has the courage? Well, Tom Lee did.”

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