By Ken Zurski
In May of 1915, New York wine importer George A. Kessler was on the deck of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania watching the crew go through its daily lifeboat drills when he had an idea.
Known as “The Champagne King,” Kessler was sailing to the United Kingdom from New York on business and despite the threat of a German submarine attack in open waters, had no reservations about traveling.
After witnessing the crew drills, however, Kessler went to the captain and asked if there should be drills for the passengers as well. Perhaps, Kessler suggested, each person be assigned a lifeboat, just in case.
The captain graciously said he was not authorized to do such a thing.
Later, hosting a party in his stateroom, Kessler’s concerns were met with indifference. “That is the captain’s decision,” others told him.
Two days later, on May 7, the Lusitania was at the bottom of the sea, befallen by a German torpedo. More than thousand people perished.
Kessler was not one. He survived by reaching a lifeboat first then rescued in the water. “We tried bailing and balancing, “Kessler recalled, “but the boat would tilt and turn and finally capsized again.”
Kessler made a promise to himself, vowing that if he lived through the ordeal he would help others injured in war.
Later in the hospital, Kessler met a disabled British newspaperman who opened a center for soldiers with eye injuries. Inspired, Kessler sought out a person he knew could help.
Her name was Helen Keller.
Together they founded the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund, an organization which still exists today.
(Sources: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen; Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston; various internet sites)