A Lost Story of a Young Hero, Recently Uncovered

Monday of last week, I was helping research friends of Emma Louise “Emy-Lou” Biedenharn. I happened to be searching their names on Newspapers.com to see if I could find any photos of them. What I accidentally stumbled on, was an account of one of them saving Emy-Lou’s life!

On the afternoon of March 9, 1917, 14 year old Leland Petagna was taking friends Emy-Lou Biedenharn (14) and Pauline Clarke (9) rowing in his boat on Lake Beulah. The lake was an overflow for the saltwater natitorium, named for mayor Forsythe’s wife Beulah. The children were enjoying the trip, until somehow the boat turned over. Some accounts say Pauline jumped from the boat. The children were dumped into the frigid, eight foot deep water, two hundred sixty feet from shore. Pauline knew how to swim and started making for the shore. Leland grabbed hold of the overturned boat’s hull and held on. Emy-Lou, who had bundled in layers to protect herself from the cold, began to be dragged under by the weight of her water-logged clothes.

On the banks of the lake, watching the whole thing, was Pauline’s 13 year old sister, Lily Blanks Clarke. She saw her friends and sister struggling in the water and without thought, plunged into the water. The first she rescued was her sister Pauline, who was beginning to tire. After saving her sister, she plunged back in and rescued Emy-Lou. By this time, Pauline and Lily’s mother Willie Lee was screaming for help. No one in the crowd knew how to swim, although one man waded in up to his waist.

Leland lost his grip on the boat. Lily saw that no one could or would help, so she went back to save Leland. She swam past Leland to the boat, shoved it to him so he could hang on again and pushed him and the boat back to shore. Lily saved three lives that day and was hailed a hero in several newspapers. Articles said she had been taught to swim at the natitorium and was an excellent swimmer.

Almost immediately, a movement began to get Lily nominated for the Carnegie Heros medal. In October, 1919, Lily was awarded the bronze medal for heroism. It is now in the possession of descendants. Just think, there would have been no El-Song Garden, no Bible Museum and probably no Biedenharn museum (at least not the way we know it today!) without the actions of a little thirteen year old girl that day in 1917!

For more info:

An audio account of Lily’s actions from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission site

Link to a newsletter with an account of that day from one of Lily’s children. It includes pictures of Lily.

Click to access issue30.pdf

2 thoughts on “A Lost Story of a Young Hero, Recently Uncovered

  1. When you were conducting your interviews did anyone mention a man called Charlie Howard Oaks. He was from Monroe Louisiana. He lived on their grounds and was hired to be Emma’s chauffeur for a number of years?
    I am looking for picture(s)of him.
    Please respond to my email


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