If you drive the Poplar Corridor, you’ve probably driven past the row of shops near Poplar and Mendenhall that includes Cavalier Cleaners, a 62-year old East Memphis business owned and operated by Ann and Leroy Hidinger Jr. and their children for all of those years.
And if you went to talk with Leroy Hidinger at the business you would find him in a small office off the counter with boxes of paper receipts and other reminders of the way offices were kept before computers. Some heavy brass desk ornaments like a date changer and a pen set were on the desk which showed every indication of a business owner tending to his business with his time-tested methods and knowledge and help from his family.
I was one of those who went to the dry cleaning business to talk with him about a very remarkable life that came to an end a week ago at the age of 93.
He told me about opening the dry cleaning business when the area was mostly cotton fields by the railroad tracks and the ups and downs, worries and rewards of being a business owner with a storefront in a changing area.
That part of the life of a man who had an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from the old Southern Law School wasn’t the reason I was there. It was something he didn’t talk about publicly very often.
It happened toward the beginning of a long life that was in so many ways the story of our times but other times as well and the journey of one man across all of them.
Hidinger was the last living survivor of the sinking of the boat the M.E. Norman on May 8, 1925 on the Mississippi River south of Memphis. Most Memphians don’t recognize the name of the boat. They identify what happened as the incident in which Tom Lee rescued 32 people from the boat who were drowning in the river’s swift current after the boat capsized.
Hidinger was five years old when he boarded the boat with his father and his grandmother. His father, like most of those on the boat, was an engineer. The occasion was a river excursion to see the willow mats that were part of the riverworks south of Memphis. The Engineers’ Club was hosting a national convention of other engineers in the city.
I talked with Hidinger twice in his later years about that day – once on the telephone and another time at his business on Poplar.
He told me of being uneasy about the river trip before he and his family left their home on Vinton. He even told his father that the boat was going to sink. But he dismissed any notion that it was a premonition. It was just his first boat trip, he said.
And the uneasiness passed until the boat capsized and he was thrown into the river. When he surfaced he didn’t see his father or his grandmother anywhere around him. In the immediate chaos, someone near him in the river picked him up and threw him near where his father happened to be.
That was one of the clearest and most inexplicable memories of the incident he had more than 80 years later. He stopped in each telling of the story to wonder repeatedly who had done it and why. He and his father managed to find a temporary seat on the boat bottom along with others and his father told him to get on his back and not let go.
With that, his father, who was an excellent swimmer, swam to a sandbar and collapsed in exhaustion.
That is where Hidinger’s memory of what happened began to fragment – understandable given everything that happened. He remembered being taken from the sandbar on dirt roads to a place in the Mississippi darkness with a bed that he shared with other soaked and traumatized survivors and the smell of the damp thick blankets as they lay together in the makeshift beds.
I couldn’t help but think that for a five year old boy it must have been a swift and conflicted journey to sleep before the return to Memphis and the waiting reaction of a city that embraced the story even before Tom Lee had finished searching the river for survivors into the next morning.
The newspapers of the day continued to embrace the story as well in the days that followed and the story of Hidinger’s grandmother was one of those stories. The way it was told in one of the dramatic print accounts, Hidinger’s father had a choice in the churning waters of helping his son or helping his mother, but not both and he chose to save his son.
Decades later, Hidinger still remembered that particular account which might have been why he was so hesitant to talk with reporters over the years. I hadn’t quite figured out how I was going to raise the question or if I was going to raise it, when he brought it up.
He told me that he read the account at the time and for quite a while after didn’t mention it to his father. Finally, his father told him it wasn’t true, that he had never seen his mother, Hidinger’s grandmother, after the Norman capsized.
The Engineers’ club embraced Tom Lee in the aftermath of the disaster. And the city of Memphis rewarded Lee with a job as a sanitation worker.
Lee’s route in the job included the Hidinger house on Vinton Avenue where Hidinger talked often with Lee about that day on the river after bringing him cookies and lemonade and extending the stop for a while. Hidinger said Lee’s visits and their talks were always an event he looked forward to.
Lee was someone he and his father could talk with who knew what they knew about that day on the river. Among them they didn’t have all the answers. But they had the same questions.
Sometimes in this job you talk to people who take you places – very vivid places that you had no idea existed. That was the case with Leroy Hidinger. I could picture him and Lee under a tree in the backyard telling different parts of the same story to each other and each with a more complete understanding in the exchange, but still not a whole understanding of what had happened and why. Their lives changed forever, they still find the world around them unchanged for the most part — like the change came and went leaving no trace. That is except for the experience that they both knew from different perspectives. I still picture them talking for a bit. Maybe Lee remarking about the boy growing taller but after the talk looking at each other and remembering the experience.
Lee would live into the mid 1950s. Hidinger lived to be his age and longer, longer than anyone else on the boat that day.
The only reason I found him was because he found me in 1998. His wife called me after I had done a set of stories in The Commercial Appeal about a copper box that some demolition workers had found on the site of what had been the headquarters site of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in southwest Memphis. It was during work on the Birmingham Steel mini-mill. As they broke up one of the old columns at its entrance, the old box tumbled out and one of the demolition workers who later opened the box called asking about the newspaper clippings from 1925 inside.
There were some other relics inside including the mud and oil caked Corps of Engineers flag recovered from the Norman.
Like most native Memphians of my age, I grew up hearing the basic and simple story of Tom Lee. When the copper box was opened it introduced me to a much broader and more complex story that intersected so many lives.
Leroy Hidinger lived a full life beyond the story that intersected and influenced his life at an early age. That, to me, is the true nature of history. It is the broad story of a boat that capsizes and the people who survived, those who don’t, those who saved lives. But it is also the hesitancy before the boat trip, the smell of the damp blankets, the unspoken worries of a child ultimately resolved by his father and the conversations and moments around shared experiences. All of these span generations and any other kind of barriers that don’t seem to matter that much as we live our lives in the times that define us and that we in turn define.