Harry Elkins Widener. A story of tragedy, loss, fortitude, courage, of a great ship, early death and a monument of eternal worth now challenged.
Republished with author's permission by Stephen Clinton http://KingsOfCash.com
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. I entered Harvard University in September, 1969. From that day forward until I graduated, there was hardly a day when I failed to visit Widener Library. It was the most magnificent presence of all the magnificent presences in Harvard Yard, one which in its grandeur captured every eye.
In my mind's eye, many of my memories of Harvard take place running up Widener's marble steps; then, after running up more marble steps I, like any labyrinthine animal scurried into the stacks, where my carrel was sure to be an explosion of books; here the clutter cheered me and unequivocally demonstrated the aura of An Important Person at work on a book that would startle the world with its unparalleled brilliance. I was a Harvard student destined for greatness like every Harvard student. Clutter was my right if I decreed, and bathing in books was what ambitious students did, no need for further discussion or consideration.
All these happy memories, the ones I am always pleased to recall and share, came for me and for the thousands and thousands of students who have their own memories of this place, as the direct result of a young Harvard man dying early and tragically. This man's name was Harry Elkins Widener... Widener Library is his monument and eternal beneficial legacy. This is his story and we cannot tell it often enough.
Facts about Harry Elkins Widener.
HEW, as he liked to sign his letters, was born an American aristocrat on January 3,1885. From the moment of his impatiently awaited birth, the riches of the world were his to command. As such, people gawked for a view of him, vied to be his associate, his advisor, his friend. However, all the hoop-la made him quiet, conservative, wary, and guarded...
Here as in all the matters of his life, he was comme il faut. That single phrase summed him up and was enough for most people to know to approve. He could always be counted on to do the right thing, the correct thing, the thing the right kind of people deemed satisfactory and proper.
In other words, HEW was probably a bit ponderous, a trifle self-satisfied, and a smidgeon dull. Of course these traits were completely forgotten and forgiven if you were as wealthy as HEW. Then whatever he did was a virtue, commendable, just so. He was a "brick" indeed. And so he was.
But he was more than that, more than just another native plutocrat with money to burn; more than a man who had only to mutter a hope... for that hope to occur in timely, efficient, well run fashion.
At home with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Dunton Widener, at the top of the tree.
To understand this story, you must rethink your ideas of how much money makes you wealthy and instead focus on the lifestyle of people like the Wideners. They lived in a world of excess where anything less than perfect service was unthinkable, unimaginable.
These privileged few in what Mark Twain named "the gilded age" had money problems all right; they just happened to be the exact opposite to what the rest of mankind has -- the problem of knowing what to do with the millions they didn't need, couldn't use to buy since they had already bought and then bought even more.
At no time in the history of mankind had such people existed. There had always been aristocrats and the well-to-do in all cultures but cascades of money, avalanches of money, the breath taking excess of mind-boggling wealth... these things and the people who had them were new... powerful, influential, buying and selling anyone and anything necessary to strengthen their control over... everything. They played the great game with brilliant insights into money, how to get it, use it, live it. Of course they had opulent estates, castles, villas, town houses in a string of fine cities. Each was a manifestation that they were the Elect of God, worthy of everything they had and the more they must surely get tomorrow.
To understand HEW you must understand Lynnnewood Hall, home of the Widener family. It was built in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania by HEW's grandfather P.A.B. Widener, the founder of the family's escalating fortunes. P.A.B., in the best traditions of the Great Republic, started life as a butcher's apprentice. He then created his own butcher shops, and made a small fortune selling mutton to Federal troops during the Civil War. He made money in everything he touched... but he made his immense fortune by buying up streetcar lines in Philadelphia. The well-served public not only thanked the man for the robust improvements he made to assist them go about their business... they also made him a titan of industry made of money and determined to get the greatest possible return for every cent he spent. And he did.
Having consolidated all the lines in Philadelphia, he diversified into railroads, helped organize U.S. Steel and the American Tobacco Company. He also invested heavily in Standard Oil, each acquisition easier than the one before; each presaging the next mighty leap. By the time of his death in 1915, P.A.B. was worth nearly $100 million, the equivalent of over 2 billion dollars today. Lynnewood Hall was his statement to the world that he had arrived and they best take note. He insisted upon 110 rooms, 55 bedrooms, and the most grand salons and public areas which would be seen and scrutinized by every visitor. He had nothing to worry about...
... neither did HEW. However, freed from the worries of lesser men, he needed something substantial to do. Let us be plain with each other; finding this is amongst the most difficult of life's tasks, for what you are creating is -- you -- your most important job. Luckily for him, HEW didn't have to wait long for inspiration. He found it in the books which he read with eager joy and happy dedication. He didn't know it quite yet but he had found not merely a hobby or avocation... but a career as a bibliophile and deep pocketed connoisseur. It was a world he revered and which in turn made much of him. Of course that meant Harvard where he was class of '07, soon to take his place amongst the most well known and respected 10,000 men of Harvard. What propelled him to this apogee was great tragedy, namely the end of majestic RMS Titanic. You see HEW like all his fellow passengers on this maiden voyage was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And here Harry Elkins Widener showed the world the right way to die... comme il faut.
A watery grave on the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic.
April 14,1912 the First Class passengers on Titanic had finished a dinner worthy of people like the Wideners, HEW's parents and himself. It was black tie, of course, ladies resplendent in the finest of diamonds, one riviere after another. A few hours later, after Titanic struck an iceberg at 23.40 pm, every single passenger was worried about one thing and one thing only: survival. As we all know, there were too few lifeboats and those at hand improperly used, thereby consigning several hundred additional passengers to a premature death which need not have been theirs. Thanks to eye-witness accounts we know what young Harry did and how he and his father died, together, nobly, without complaint or retribution; their last benefaction in a life filled with so many.
In the best traditions of the Edwardian gentleman, Harry and his father saw his mother, his wife into a lifeboat along with her maid. There was no space in any lifeboat for them, nothing that could save their ultra privileged existences. And so when Titanic sank at 02.20 am, the stalwart Widener men went down, too; parting for eternity with perhaps nothing more than a handshake. Their mortal remains were never found. But their renown grew and forever as the walls of Harvard's new marvel Widener Library rose.
Mrs. George D. Widener, grieving widow, grieving mother.
Mrs. Widener and her maid were rescued leaving them both a lifetime of unbearable memories.... and in Mrs. Widener's case, the fierce desire to make the inexplicable meaningful and a means to peace of mind and better lives for thousands. She donated the enormous sum of $3.5 million and the imposing new edifice was dedicated June 24, 1915. It was then and has remained the largest university library system in the world. Here reside over 3,300 of the books and other literary artifacts her forever gallant son collected... the most venerated objects of all the many venerated objects in Widener.
Thus this story of death and misery should have ended on a note of generosity and kindness. But it cannot, will not end here. Now a new crisis is at hand for Widener and all the component parts of the Harvard University Library system. That threat is the Internet, something more powerful than all the icebergs on this planet and completely insidious. The World Wide Web challenges Widener and all the great library systems of our great educational institutions; already readjustments, down sizings, myriad changes, and sweeping rearrangements have taken place. More must and will come. What will this mean for Harry Elkins Widener's monumental library? No one can say for sure. But we know this: Widener Library exists because of a son's tragic demise and his grieving mother, her vision, and her generosity.
Who can and will play the generative role in the reshaping of the original Widener and the vastly different institution it must become to continue its essential work for Harvard, its students, and for the world? We all rely upon Widener and its spectacular and numerous books, both those on the shelves and the ones being written in the stacks right this minute. Let's make sure we never forget this fact or the generosity of the Wideners or the solemn young man whose death by muddle and drowning made it happen. Lest we forget that which we must always remember.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today.
Republished with author's permission by Stephen Clinton http://KingsOfCash.com