Never Any Thanks!

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I have lived most of my life in Chicago and yet I don’t recall ever hearing anything about the terrible tragedy of the sinking of the Lady Elgin in the waters of Lake Michigan off the coast of Highland Park, Illinois on September 8, 1860. 

Around 2 A.M. the steamship Lady Elgin collided with the schooner Augusta. The Lady Elgin was carrying more than 400 passengers and crew on a round-trip sightseeing tour from Milwaukee to Chicago. More than 300 people died in the collision and 98 survived.

Many victims held onto floating debris for long hours in the cold water. Some ultimately reached the shore only to be pulled back into the breakers by a fierce undertow. 

Seventeen people were saved that night by a Northwestern University student named Edward W. Spencer, who battled the breakers for six hours. An experienced swimmer, he had a rope tied to his body, and time after time swam through the waves to grab exhausted passengers. His associates on the other end of the rope then pulled him and the victim to shore. 

Despite numerous injuries from floating wreckage, Spencer repeatedly dashed into the raging surf to rescue passengers in mortal peril. Seeing his deteriorating condition, others tried to stop him, but on he went. He is credited with saving 17 people, one by one, finally collapsing in utter exhaustion. 

It is reported that, as he lay all night in the infirmary, he repeated over and over, “Did I do my best, fellows? Have I done my best?”

Spencer is honored by a plaque in the gymnasium of Northwestern University. But there are a couple of sad footnotes to his story. He was so badly injured that he never finished his education and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. 

About 50 years later when he returned to Northwestern University, he said with tears in his eyes, “Not one of those 17 people I rescued ever came back and even said thank you.”

Though he undoubtedly did not rescue them in order to earn their gratitude, it is a sad commentary on our human condition that we so often do not say “Thank You,” even to someone who has saved our life. 

How often do YOU say “Thank You” every time someone irons your clothes, cleans up the kitchen, sits down and pays the bills, waits on YOU at the store or sends YOU an email?


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