The story of Richard Williams, once a 21−year−old with the potential to become the best tennis player in America, was longer lost than the ship upon which the unique thread of his story was woven.
To be precise, the Titanic had gone undiscovered for 73 years before explorers found it 1,200 feet below the sea’s surface. It’s now 100 years and a few days later, and Williams’ heroism still goes unnoticed.
As David Whitley, a columnist for AOL FanHouse, reported on Saturday, Williams and his father Charles were unruffled by the initial jerk of the Titanic crashing into the iceberg. “After all,” Whitley wrote, “the Titanic was considered unsinkable.”
That fateful night, Richard Williams shouldered down a door to rescue a trapped passenger, acted as a life preserver for a man who couldn’t fit onto a decaying lifeboat and survived five hours of 28−degree water.
He also lost his father.
Every so often, a story is written about a young man or woman who has overcome all odds to excel at something, whatever it may be. What typically is left out, however, is the kind of lives that these people lead. Richard Williams led an exemplary one, and it’s a damn shame that his own improbable journey has been lost among the many annals of that tragedy.
When a rescue boat finally arrived close to dawn, Richard, despondent over the loss of his father whom he had seen just hours earlier in good health, went down beneath the deck to have his legs examined.
The doctor’s prognosis was dire — gangrene, he said — yet Williams brazenly refused amputation. Two years later, in an extraordinary triumph of the human spirit, he would become one of the best tennis players in the world.
His wife once commented that if you were to speak to him, you’d never know that he played tennis, much less that he won the 1912 U.S. mixed doubles championship, the 1914 and 1916 U.S. singles championships, the 1920 Wimbledon men’s doubles championships and an Olympic gold in 1924.
Or that he earned the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre while serving in the American army during World War I, became a wealthy Philadelphia−based investment banker and philanthropist and served as the president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
One might argue that a man’s mettle is seen most clearly in the face of daunting opposition and that is certainly a legitimate assertion. But I believe that the way in which Williams carried himself after his Titanic misadventure speaks volumes more about his character than his heroics on the ship ever could.
The act of going quietly about one’s business is irretrievably lost on this generation. In an age fraught with social media, most of us who amount to something of renown tend to tweet about it or boast about it on Facebook.
It would not be a stretch to add that the increasing availability of social networks has contributed heavily to the demise of humility. People not only feel the need to communicate each of their successes, but they can now satisfy that need on whatever sites they’re members of.
So thank you, Mr. Williams, for living the kind of life that we all should strive to emulate. Your story is at once inspiring and vital, as it marries success and modesty in a perfect demonstration of how greatness does not have to supersede, and can instead coexist with, first−rate character.
Let this be a lesson to us all: No matter the material wealth and accomplishments you rack up, do not lose sight of what’s important. I, for one, wouldn’t mind being remembered in the same vein as Richard Williams.