Some American Red Cross volunteers understand disaster in their bones. They experience one personally. Lily Wilson Potter and her daughter Olive Potter Earnshaw boarded lifeboat number seven, off the side of the Titanic at 12:45 am on April 15th in order to survive the most famous maritime disaster on record.
Lily Potter (widow of wealthy Philadelphian, Thomas Potter Jr.) and Olive Potter Earnshaw, were passengers on the Titanic, returning from a trip to Europe that began in January, 1912. Lily Potter sought rest and distraction for her daughter after Olive’s difficult decision to divorce her first husband, Boulton Earnshaw. They were among 2,224 passengers who boarded the Titanic at its European ports. Four days into the crossing, the ship hit an iceberg and sank in freezing water with over a thousand passengers still aboard. Lily Potter and Olive were among the 760 passengers rescued from lifeboats by the HMS Carpathia.
Lily Potter knew about disaster relief. Her husband, Thomas Potter Jr. was called up to serve as a member of the National Guard in the aftermath of the floods at Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1887. Moved by the plight of the survivors, Lily Potter sent a trained nurse from her own household to assist Clara Barton in the aftermath. Her husband received a medal for his service.
Lily Potter said of the Titantic, “It was the most tragic sight anyone will ever witness.” The fate of the scores of people on deck as the ship went down stayed with her. In 1916, during the First World War, she began volunteering her time with the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross. Lily was the driving force behind the Production Department, marshaling thousands of volunteers to both collect and manufacture essential materials for overseas hospitals. In a 1945 written history overseen by Mrs. Potter, it states that the Production Department included “the old and young, the rich and poor of all races and creeds and color – all who wish to find an outlet for their natural desires to be of service in time of war or of disaster.” Clearly, Lily Potter’s embrace of all who could be of service speaks well of her as a citizen of our diverse nation.
In 1944, at the age of 88, Lily was recognized for 27 years of dedicated service to the American Red Cross. Her daughter Olive also remained a lifelong American Red Cross volunteer leading the “cut garment” distribution department through both World Wars.
Lily Potter and her daughter Olive knew firsthand what it was like to be cold, shocked and bereft survivors of a terrible tragedy. Their commitment to the American Red Cross was a fitting tribute to their extraordinary experience.