Monthly Archives: April 2018

The Titanic Fanatic

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Steve Mattis stands in his library, which is filled with Titanic memorabilia.

On March 28, 1956, nine-year-old Steven Mattis sat mesmerized in his living room in Philadelphia as Kraft Theater’s adaptation of A Night to Remember unfolded. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Walter Lord, the one hour television production told the story of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. At first enthralled by the beautiful ship, the glamour of the first class passengers, and the contrast to the third class passengers circumstances, Mattis’ fascination turned to horror as he viewed the shocking climax: Three hours after hitting an iceberg, the British ocean liner sank into the North Atlantic Ocean. Over one thousand five hundred men, women, and children perished. 

It was a life-changing event. That night, Mattis cried himself to sleep. “I realized that my parents could not save me from all of life’s dangers,” he remembered.

In the years that followed, Mattis spent much of his spare time reading and researching everything he could learn about the doomed voyage. His interest in the supposedly “unsinkable ship” has expanded over six decades. More recently Mattis has thrilled innumerable people who have listened to his lectures on the subject. 

The Titanic did not play into his professional career. For thirty-seven years, Mattis taught Spanish, first in Philadelphia and then for seven years in Fort Lauderdale,Florida. In 2005, Mattis moved to Solivita, an active 55+ community in Kissimmee. A seasoned traveler—he has been on 117 cruises so far—he joined Solivita travel club and  spent the next twelve years organizing and leading trips for its members. His travels have taken him and the travel club groups to China, Tahiti, Antarctica, Alaska, Hawaii, the Mediterranian, and safaris in Africa.

In April 2012, Mattis participated in the 100th Anniversary Titanic Memorial Cruise. The MS Balmoral, which sailed out of Southhampton, England, retraced the doomed liner’s fateful journey. For Mattis and many of its 1308 other passenger—seventy relatives of people who had died onboard or who had survived—the highlight was the moving memorial service. The ship sailed to the site of the sinking to be there exactly one hundred years to the hour. The commemorative ceremonies began at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 when Titanic struck the iceberg and ended at 2:20 a.m., April 15, when she sank under the sea. 

The following fall, Mattis presented a talk with accompanying slides on his “trip of a lifetime” to Solivita’s Travel Club.Before embarking on  a cruise on the Amazon the following year, Mattis posted a question to fellow cruisers: “Would any of you be interested in hearing my Titanic lecture?” The response was overwhelmingly favorable. Over forty people showed up at that first lecture. The cruise director, impressed with the depth of knowledge and passion Mattis conveyed, encouraged the “Titanic fanatic” to add additional lectures to his repertoire and offer the package on future cruises. Mattis and his best friend, Andy Miller, complied, adding three more lectures.The rest, as Mattis says, was history.  

Starting with groups in Solivita and local libraries, Mattis expanded his audience to multiple cruise lines, including Azamara, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Princess and Celebrity. His audiences have been as large six hundred people, often growing over the length of the cruise as favorite word of mouth reviews spread throughout the ship. 

Mattis’ lectures are —no pun intended—a tip of the iceberg regarding people’s interest in the ill-fated voyage. Traveling expeditions, numerous museums, special events, television shows, and eight movies still draws crowds. (Mattis himself has seen A Night to Remember fifteen times and James Camerons’ Titanic close to fifty.) 

What brings people to Mattis’ lectures on a cruise ship when they could be sunning by the pool or learning how to fold napkins? Mattis believes that this is a story into which people can put themselves. Mattis said that the fact that the Titanic took close to three hours to go down puts people into the story.”’Who would I have been in the Titanic?’ people ask.” Mattis said. “Would I have been a hero? A villain? A first class passenger steeped in elegance? A third class immigrant in steerage?” 

The irony—the pure tragedy—also sparks peoples interest. “There was great hubris by both the designers and the captain in thinking that a ship—with a shortage of lifeboats for partly esthetic reasons—could be unsinkable and could run at full speed at night through ice fields after warning after warning of the danger.”

Mattis often  tailors his lectures to his audiences, as he did in 2015 when he gave a lecture on Jews on the Titanic for Solivita’s Shalom Club. Mattis, whose family belonged to Brith Israel, a conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, takes pride in the way prominent Jews handled their fate on the ship. 

As did many passengers, Benjamin Guggenheim, the fifth of seven sons of the wealthy mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim, initially did not realize the fatal consequences that would result from the ships’s collision with the iceberg. “We will soon see each other again! It’s just a repair,” he said to the women and children he and his valet were helping into lifeboats. Once he realized that he and many others would not survive, he returned to his cabin and donned his evening wear. “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” said Guggenheim. Mattis said later accounts described the billionaire and his valet as last seen seated in chairs in the foyer of the Grand Staircase sipping brandy and smoking cigars, ready to accept their fate without fear or hesitation. Their bodies were never recovered.

Two other Jews who lost their lives on April 15, 1912, were German-born Isador Strauss, politician and the owner of Macy’s Department Store, and his wife Ida Strauss. The couple were on the Titanic traveling back from a winter in Europe. Once it was clear the Titanic was sinking, Isador refused to get into a lifeboat, stating firmly, “I will not go before the other men.”  Ida handed her fur coat to her maid, Ellen Bird, as she left the lifeboat, said, “As we have lived, so will we die, together.” In what eye witnesses later described as a”most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion.” Isidor and Ida were last seen on deck arm in arm.

Broadway producer Henry Birkhardt Harris was more successful in convincing his wife, actress Renee Harris to board a lifeboat without him. Earlier that day, Renee had broken her arm in a fall on the Grand Staircase. Convincing her that he could not save himself as well as his disabled wife, Henry refused a seat and also perished. His widow, who became New York City’s first woman theatrical producer, remarried three times and lived until 93. 

Not all Jews were first class passengers.Leah Rosen Aks, emigrating to America from London, was on the Titanic with her infant son Phillip. Leah and her son were separated in the confusion when they were being loaded on the lifeboats. “Filly” was thrown into another lifeboat; the inconsolable Leah was soon placed on Lifeboat 13. Soon after Carpathia rescued the survivors, Leah was walking on the deck when she recognized her son’s cry. However, the woman who had caught Phillip, regarding the baby as a “gift from God,” claimed it to be her own. In a scenario rivaling King Solomon, Leah pleaded her case to the Carpathia’s captain. Only when Leah was able to identify a distinguishable birthmark on his breastbone was Phillip returned to his birth mother. Leah and Phillip were reunited with her husband Sam in New York. They later had a second son, Harry, and a daughter, Sarah Carpathia—named after the rescue ship.

Mattis also related another note of Jewish interest: The Titanic had a kosher kitchen. On board was a “Hebrew” chef, a non-Jew from South Africa, who had trained with a rabbi in Southhampton on previous White Line cruises. A kosher option was available to all passengers, including those in third class.

Over one hundred years later, all the passengers are gone, not only those that died but those who survived. Millvina Dean, who was two months old when the vessel hit the iceberg, died in 2009 at the age of 97. 

Mattis regards the time he spends sharing the Titanic’s stories as his contribution to the legacy of the ship. “The fact that this story stays alive and is of interest to so many brings me joy,” says Solivita’s own Titanic Fanatic.

By Her Students She Was Taught….

The Parkland shootings, which took place in nearby Broward County, took place almost three months. I, along with many others, are trying to process this tragedy. Friends, family, former teachers, and current students are still sharing their thoughts with me, and those will be the topic of a future article. Meanwhile, I am sharing an article reflecting my own experience teaching a college preparation course almost twenty-five years ago:

May 28, 1993,  was graduation day at the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center, a division of Hudson Valley Community College which offers a wide range of programs and educationally  and economically disadvantaged adults.

During and after the ceremony, there were laughter, tears, and the inevitable thanks that we teachers receive from our students for the time we spent with them in the classroom. My college preparation students tanked me for guiding them through their term papers, helping them improve their study skills, and making sense out of difficult reading passages. What my students don’t realize is that I, as an adult educator, have learned as much from them as they learned from me.

I have learned about determination. Two and a half years ago, Michael was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from a construction accident that nearly killed him and ended his career. Rather than curing the powers that be, he decided, twenty years after finishing high school, to rebuild his life by pursuing a college degree.

“I’ve always believed that God never closes a door without opening a window,” Michael wrote in one of his essays. His window was going back to school. Despite the pain of his injuries, a long commute from Know to Albany, and family responsibilities, Michael came every day, motivated, determined, and optimistic that he would reach his goal. That same determination will serve him well at Hudson Valley Community College come September.

I have learned about courage. Sharon is a recovering agoraphobiac, a woman afraid to leave the shelter of her home. The first day of class, she learned that an oral presentation was a requirement of the course. She was terrified. Coming to school was enough of a challenge; speaking in front of a class was nearly impossible. The last week of class, however, her face white but determined, her hands gripping the podium for emotional and physical support, Sharon gave her speech to her supportive classmates. When she finished, the class broke into spontaneous applause.

I have learned about progress. Carmen was a D student at Colonie High School. Returning to our program at the age of thirty, he was convinced that he would barely complete my course. “I don’t think I deserve to pass,” he said. “I am not sure if I am smart enough to handle college.” His final essay belied his own belief. His piece on what was needed to succeed in college was nearly letter perfect and showcased the progress he had made this semester. “You deserved this A. You can succeed in college,” I wrote on his paper.

I have learned to be tough. Carol, a recovering addict who spent a friend time as a homeless person on the streets of Albany, a student who was repeating my course after failing in the fall, thanked me for taking off points every time she turned in a paper late. “It is important for me to take responsibility when I fail.” She also advised me to stop listening to the recovering addicts’ sob stories and start coming down hard on them for not completing assignments. “We know how to bulls**t you,Marilyn. Don’t listen,” she advised me.

I have learned about compassion. On the days that I was tired and ‘soul weary,’ as one of my  perceptive students said, the students cared about me. “Get some sleep Marilyn. We can wait for our papers.”

I also saw their compassion for each other: the student groups, the impromptu tutoring, the support that gave each other either in learning how to use the computer or in keeping up spirits when someone failed a test.

The students have given of themselves: a perspective comment, a good argument, a family story, and anecdote, a journal entry letting me know they are enjoying may class. I read essays about a very special Christmas, a child’s birth, a grandmother’s death, homeless families in bus depots, and numerous stories of recover.

I have been given much more. They have shared something of their lives. As a result, they have enriched me as both a teacher and a person. For this, I thank each one of them.