From Harvard to Pensacola: Titanic History Lessons

by C. A. Jude Stewart

100 years ago this Sunday, life ended abruptly & tragically for Harry Widener.

You don’t know Harry, like I know (of) Harry.

He loved books, as I do. Graduated from Harvard (1907), 7 decades prior to my post-graduate studies (history & humanities) there in Cambridge.

I love Harvard, now celebrating its 376th year. My 36 graduate credits (1985-86) were achieved while commuting long, weekly distances between Harvard (where I studied); Methuen (where I lived/invested in real estate, on the NH-Mass. border, off I-93), Chelmsford (where I worked at then billion-dollar workstation dynamo Apollo Computer, off I-495 & US Route 3); & southeastern NY State (Pound Ridge-Mt. Kisco/Westchester County; Spring Valley/Rockland County), where family was then-centered.

Harry & I had our radical cultural differences. He was rich & high-borne. His dad founded the Ritz-Carlton hotel empire. The Philly, PA-based Wideners were Gilded Age investors in monopolies like US Steel & American Tabacco.

I was poor & low-borne. Lived in Dogtown, a violent, littered, poverty-entrenched, nasty, pot-holed & stankifiable Hudson River enclave, 44 miles north of NYC. A stone’s throw east of the NY Central RR tracks, where Daddy & my maternal Grandpop worked ferociously hard, all the years of their underpaid, dangerous lives.

The only investments Daddy or Grandpop made were biological: exhausted genetic loinal seed, given to damaged wives & socially isolated mothers who tried to create a sense of home in company-built shacks & unheated laborers’ flats—back in the Roarin’ 20s & Prohibition ’30s.

Combined, these 2 shattered men brought 21 chillens into the world: ill-fed, ill-tempered, ill-housed, ill-disciplined, ill-treated progeny. 13 lived, including your humble PV memoirist. 8 died, stillborn.

The final one, murdered by a vicious right uppercut to Mama’s unprotected belly, in a drunken family brawl over baseball during a televised World Series game (LA Dodgers-NY Yankees) on Wednesday, October 2, 1963.

With MVP Sandy Koufax on the mound, an ambulance came & drove her bloodied self to the hospital 2 blocks away. At l’il Petey’s last rites, just Mama & priest attended. They said holy, desultory prayers. Petey was laid to rest. Life blows up. Yet, keeps on going. LA swept the Yankees 4-0.

Harry Elkins’ truncated life ended April 15, 1912, age 27. I’ve been graced to double his total, plus 3.

His name adorns Harvard Yard’s most lustrous building: the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. I spent long days there, simply wandering the vast 320,000 square foot Beaux-Arts edifice containing nearly 16 million books, 57 miles of book shelves—the world’s largest university library.

My name adorns this PV column (fine by me), as I pay homage to the Widener legacy, on America.

Eleanor Elkins, Harry’s mum, donated $3.5 million to Harvard, to build Widener Library. It opened 3 years later on June 24, 1915, 80 years (to the exact day) prior to my 4th Catholic child’s birthday.

Mrs. Elkins commemorated her son with a world-renowned library. You see, Harry Elkins was one of 1517 dead on the Titanic. It sank this Sunday (4/15/1912) on its maiden voyage — history’s greatest maritime disaster.

At Harvard, Widener Library was my personal intellectual sanctuary.

In downtown Pensacola, our newly transformed jewel-of-a-library building is sanctuary here as much as Widener was then. Because of Governor Baldy’s state funding cuts, EC’s Administrator Randy Oliver threatens to eradicate the county’s $3.7 million library budget—$200,000 more than it cost to build the world’s finest university library, 100 years ago.

This is an UNMITIGATED disaster for black/PV library supporters.

Harry’s mom knew how to face devastation, in a financially/educationally healing way. So must we, facing library oblivion.

Is Randy Oliver a fiscal bureaucratic barbarian, hell-bent on destroying our newly upgraded system? Or will he “right the ship”, steering it smartly to avoid the fiscal iceberg threatening to eviscerate Northwest Florida’s libraries?

As Spike Lee once exhorted: do the right thing, Randy. Restore full library funding.

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