The story from the Aug. 1, 1908, Brooklyn Daily Eagle that goes with the headline above begins this way: “A merry party of thirteen summer sojourners were returning home on Monday night from a short launch ride when an accident occurred, causing a great deal of excitement and resulting in a very thrilling and heroic rescue by one of the party.”
The rescuer, Ambrose Clegg, mentioned in the headline would become my father many years later. He was then a few weeks short of his 19th birthday. According to the story, the action took place in Centerport, Long Island, a small town on Long Island Sound. My father had been “summering” at a Franciscan Brothers’ camp at the time.
According to the newspaper, the teenage Ambrose Clegg had rowed out to the launch in a light boat to ferry a few passengers back to shore. The unfortunate Miss M. Farrell, “a young woman well known in Greenport Circles,” missed her footing and fell headlong in the deep channel. “In an instant Mr. Clegg plunged after her without waiting to remove any of his clothing” and rescued Miss Farrell, who had been carried downstream by the swift current. Later that night, the story said, a “sociable” was held at which Mr. Clegg and Miss Farrell were the recipients of many congratulations.
All of this was news to me. A relative in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Kevin Cusack, uncovered this family tale, among several others, while perusing the Newspapers.com website, a database of more than 4,600 historical newspapers. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which was founded in 1842 and folded in 1955, was once the nation’s most widely read afternoon newspaper.
My father had never seen fit to tell me this story, which was about par for our relationship. I was the last of his eight children. He was 56 when I was born and died when I was 20. We did not have heart-to-heart talks. He revealed few personal details about his life and little of his emotions. I remember him primarily as a stern, reclusive man, dedicated to teaching high school chemistry. At home, he pursued solitary hobbies. He was a knowledgeable rose grower and mineral collector. He kept more than a dozen tanks of tropical fish in the basement.
I don’t know how young Ambrose, one of six children raised in Brooklyn by a widowed mother, came to be “summering” on Long Island. Perhaps he was working as a camp counselor. It’s hard for me to imagine my father being a member of a “merry party of thirteen summer sojourners.” The man I knew was neither merry nor sociable. He had one known friend, a fellow teacher named Mr. White, and saw him infrequently. My father did not socialize with neighbors, nor did he interact with any of my coaches. He expressed no interest in athletics.
I can see my father rushing to rescue someone in distress. He was a no-nonsense man of high principles, a protector of his children. But I had no idea he was a strong swimmer capable of rescuing a young woman swept away by an ocean current at night.
And yet, a second newspaper uncovered by my relative revealed that my father had in the 1920s been the swimming coach at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, where he taught for 38 years.
Really, Dad? You were a coach? You couldn’t have shared that athletic experience when I was consumed by basketball as a teenager? A conversation starter, perhaps?