We Proudly Own No Cookie Cutter
Grand Rapids - (616) 633-3770 Indianapolis - (317) 769-0583

The Midweek Motivator – Shipwrecks and Survivals

Years ago while considering Graduate options, I visited Northwestern University. The strikingly beautiful, largely sandstone campus lies just north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. For all its beauty, the second largest of the Great Lakes has a dark history sinking ships of all sizes.

Walking the campus shoreline I came across a monument acknowledging a tragic shipwreck one storm-tossed night in the summer of 1860. The passenger steamer Lady Elgin was rammed by a cargo schooner and began sinking immediately. The Captain’s only option was to beach his wounded ship near the Evanston coast. A young divinity student named Jack Wilson was standing on the shore when he saw passengers desperately swimming in the five-foot seas!

All along that coastline stunned bystanders began to watch passengers struggling in the surf. Wilson dove into the surf not once or twice but fifteen times, repeatedly saving men, women and children from certain death in the clutches of the roaring Lake. Stiff and weak, Wilson sat by a fire but on looking up, he saw another man drifting toward the shore holding a woman. So he made one more plunge into the surf. His final rescue turned out to be a husband and wife.

Wilson’s body looked as if it had flogged they said and delirious from the elements, he couldn’t make another trip. Obsessed by watching the unfolding events as more passengers perished Wilson kept asking, “Did I do my best? Did I do my best?”

Northwestern University answered that question. Today on the campus there is a bronze tablet inscribed as a memorial to their undergraduate divinity hero Edward Spencer; his soul searching question lived on to inspire more sermons and lectures than Spencer might have delivered in a lifetime. He lived to be eighty-one.

As for the wayward schooner, her owners painted the hull black and renamed the ship. Its recorded the ship was regarded a bad-luck vessel and even a name change couldn’t erase her curse. No headlines marked her ending; ultimately she was wrecked off the Cleveland coast.

As we speak in mid-summer, the Great Lakes remain treacherous having sunk massive freighters and vessels of all sizes. As long as captains and crews drive their ships through the navigation season, from the April breakup through December, the possibility exists these stories may be retold by generations of “Lake Men”.

The fifteenth of November is supposed to mark the end of the Great Lakes’ season of navigation yet there is no law against sailing after that date. Stories come and go only to slip into the past. But the haunting question asked by that Northwestern University Divinity student applies to our daily endeavors: “Did I do my best?”