Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Legacy of Titanic's only Utahn will be passed down for generations

Published: Wednesday, April 4 2012 5:01 p.m. MDT

Don Corbett, holds a picture of his grandmother, Irene Corbett -- who was the only Utah person who perished on the Titanic -- on Tuesday, March 27, 2012, in North Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

NORTH SALT LAKE — The first and only time Don Corbett visited his grandmother’s burial site, he paused to say a few words of affection, then impulsively ripped off his wristwatch and flung it overboard into the Atlantic.

It was a fitting gesture, since time stopped for Irene Corbett on April 15, 1912, when the Utah schoolteacher and nurse drowned after sinking on the Titanic.

Although Don never met the spunky mother of three with auburn hair, he sometimes feels as though he’s known her all his life.

“She was a woman ahead of her time and she’s influenced me a great deal,” says Corbett, 74, a retired social worker who lives in North Salt Lake. “I’ve always tried to approach my life with as much wisdom and empathy as possible, and I owe that to Grandma Irene. It’s part of the legacy she left behind.”

With the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster approaching, Corbett thought it would be a good time to pay tribute to his grandmother — the only Utahn aboard the ship — over a Free Lunch of takeout turkey sandwiches and chicken noodle soup at the foothills home he shares with his wife, Linda.

At a sun-splashed dining room table, he opens a folder and carefully pulls out several old black-and-white snapshots of Irene Corbett, along with a postcard received by her family days after the luxurious liner hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, taking more than 1,500 lives.

Penned in dainty script, Irene, who was studying nursing in London, writes, “I’m going to sail on one of the biggest ships afloat, the Titanic. So glad to have this privilege and shall enjoy the trip home, which will be quite different from the one my dear grandmother took years ago with little comfort.”

Corbett flips over the postcard to show a faded picture of Piccadilly Circus, one of Irene’s favorite sights during her six-month London stay.

"She was adventurous and courageous," he says, "and it's amazing to think she wrote this 100 years ago and was about to get on that ship. And it’s even more incredible to think of all the unbelievable things that happened in sequence to cause the ship’s demise.”

A former schoolteacher at Payson’s Peteetneet Academy, Irene also had a degree in nursing from the Brigham Young Academy and dreamed of becoming a midwife. With support from her parents, who helped her husband, Walter, look after the children and took out a second mortgage on their home to pay her tuition, she traveled to London to study at the General Lying-In Hospital.

“She frequently went into the slums of London to help women and their children,” says Corbett, “because she had a strong sense of duty to help people less fortunate than herself.”

Today, he believes his grandmother was among only 14 second-class female passengers to perish on the Titanic because she was likely putting her nursing training to good use.

“We’ll never know for certain why she didn’t get into a lifeboat,” he says, “but my hunch is that she was helping other passengers. From what I heard about her growing up, that would have fit her personality, to see that the other women and children were taken care of. She may well have let somebody else take her seat.”

On the 100th anniversary of his grandmother’s death this year, Corbett and his wife say they’ll watch the “Titanic” movie and reflect on the lives of Irene and others whose family legacies will forever be linked with the world’s most famous shipwreck.

Ten years ago, he and Linda traced the Titanic’s route across the Atlantic, “but this time, we’ll have a small ceremony at home,” he says. “I wish I could have known Grandma Irene, but I often feel her influence. Her story will be passed down in our family and have an impact for many generations to come.”

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