Local connection reignites interest in Titanic

Two of the 1912 disaster survivors are buried in Princeton cemetery

Historian Peter Cook displays a life vest recovered from the 1912 sinking of the Titanic following his lecture at the Bureau County History Center.

Titanic historian and speaker Peter Cook had just wrapped up his May 11 lecture about the ocean liner’s 1912 sinking when he looked out over the crowd of about 160 people at the spacious Venue 450 in Princeton.

He asked whether there were any questions, and the multiple hands that shot up from the enraptured audience told the tale.

It was two hours into Cook’s presentation, sponsored by the Bureau County History Center, and those history fans still hadn’t had enough.

“This one may have the record for the most attendees, and no one left, so I consider that a success,” Cook said after he finished his talk, titled “The Titanic, the Iceberg, and the Rest of the Story.”

Cook, a 58-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel from Lakewood, Washington, has given numerous presentations about the Titanic over the past 15 years. Many of his talks have been to smaller groups – Rotary, Elks and Kiwanis clubs, as well as his mother’s book club, for example – while he also has spoken at museums and larger school groups of a hundred or so elementary students.

Cook’s curiosity in all things Titanic started when his parents gave him the book “Raise the Titanic,” by Clive Cussler, in the 1970s. The discovery of the wreck’s location at the bottom of the North Atlantic followed in 1985, and later, the 1997 “Titanic” movie further whetted Cook’s interest.

Then came his visit to a Las Vegas Titanic exhibit in 2006, and Cook was hooked.

After his Army days ended in 2008, Cook pursued more knowledge to the point that his sister asked him to address fourth graders who were studying the Titanic at her school in Bend, Oregon.

“Each year they asked me to come back, and that’s what really spurred my interest. If I’m going to be speaking, then I’d better learn a little more about it,” Cook said.

His lecture in Princeton, complete with photos, charts, movie clips and a display of Titanic books and relics, touched not only on the doomed ship, its passengers and the crew in general. It also specifically dealt with two Titanic survivors who are buried in Princeton’s Oakland Cemetery – Nellie Becker and her daughter, Marion – and Nellie’s other children, Ruth and Richard.

All four Beckers, who were en route to America from India, survived the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable ocean liner.

The tale of the rescue of Nellie Becker’s family is featured in the Bureau County History Center’s current 1912 exhibit at the Newell Bryant Museum, 634 S. Pleasant St., Princeton. The history center sponsored Cook’s appearance in Princeton to add context to the Becker family’s story.

Cook belongs to the British Titanic Society and other Titanic history organizations and attends their meetings and conventions.

“Why do I keep studying? Because it’s so fascinating. You’re always learning something new,” he said. “My goal is for you to learn at least one new thing about the Titanic that you didn’t know about before. That’s why I enjoy it – it’s sharing.”

Cook reviewed well-known facts about the disaster – that the Titanic to that point was the world’s largest ship on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from England to New York in April 1912 when it hit an iceberg, resulting in the deaths of 1,496 people – while also delving into lesser-known facts.

In the case of the Becker family, Nellie Becker and two of her children, Marion, 4, and Richard, 2, got on lifeboat 11, while daughter Ruth, 12, got on lifeboat 13.

That left them among the mere 712 individuals who survived.

Cook outlined several factors in the disaster, among them that the lookouts didn’t have binoculars because they were locked up in a cabinet; that icebergs were hard to detect that night because of quiet seas and no wind; and that one ship officer took the “women and children first” order too literally and ordered the launch of half-empty lifeboats when men could have been allowed aboard to fill remaining spots.

Cook’s lecture covered the entire history of the Titanic and its two sister ships, the Olympic and Britannic. He included a point-by-point listing of safety improvements instituted after the disaster, such as ice patrols, lifeboats for all ship passengers, required lifeboat drills and ship radios, and eyesight tests for lookouts.

Cook said he was pleased that so many people in Bureau County are interested in the topic and turned out to learn more about it.

“I want to thank you for the invitation but, more importantly, for the interest that is still there,” he said. “For [Executive Director] Lex [Poppens] and [curator] Jessica [Gray] to reach out to me, that just made me want to come that much more. Plus to learn about the Beckers, it’s simply fascinating.”

Have a Question about this article?