Titanic’s Tennis Pros

Richard “Dick” Norris Williams II was born in Geneva, Switzerland to American parents. He began playing tennis at age 12 and won the Swiss Championship in 1911 at the age of 20. About to enter Harvard with a tennis scholarship, twenty-one-year-old Dick and his father, Charles, boarded the Titanic for New York. Dick planned to play in the US Championships at Newport, Rhode Island prior to beginning his college career.

tennis titanic

Karl Behr and Richard “Dick” Williams

Karl Behr was born in New York City and graduated from Yale. In 1907, he played on the US Davis Cup tennis team, and competed in the Wimbledon Championships in the men’s doubles category. At 26, he boarded the Titanic in the company of his sweetheart, Helen Newsom, along with her parents.

On the night of April 14, 1912, Charles Williams never dreamed the ship would actually sink. Instead of donning their lifebelts, Charles and Dick used the gymnasium while the lifeboats were being loaded. When Titanic‘s bow began to dip below the surface and one of the funnels crashed into the ocean, Charles was killed instantly and Dick was washed overboard. Wearing a heavy fur coat, he removed the coat and his shoes and swam with all his might toward one of the collapsible lifeboats. He managed to reach it and hold on for a time before climbing in. He then spent several hours in the boat knee-deep in ice cold water before being transferred to Lifeboat 14. Of the original 30 passengers aboard Collapsible A, only 11 survived.

Karl, Helen, her parents, and another couple had gathered near Lifeboat 5 sometime after the Titanic hit the iceberg. One of the women asked J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of White Star Line, if they all could board the lifeboat. He told them they could. Boat 5 was the second lifeboat to leave the ship. Karl later reported the boat could have easily held 15 or 20 more passengers.

Following rescue by the Carpathia, Dick Williams finally sought out a doctor to look at his reddish-purple legs. They were so frostbitten that the doctor advised amputation to prevent gangrene. Dick refused. He told the doctor, “I’m going to need these legs.” Despite the pain, he forced himself to walk every two hours around the clock. Before the Carpathia reached New York, he met Karl Behr, who befriended and encouraged him is his recovery.

williams and behr

Dick Williams and Karl Behr

Just months later, Dick and Karl entered a tennis tournament and faced each other in a tight match. Karl won, but Dick was just getting started. He entered Harvard, and reached the quarter finals in the next US Open, winning the championship in 1914 and 1916. In 1920, he won the Wimbledon title. And in 1924, he won an Olympic gold medal in the mixed doubles category.

Karl Behr married Helen Newsom the year following the disaster. He was instrumental in helping a group of third class survivors in their suit of the White Star Line. He also assisted Molly Brown in formally recognizing Captain Rostron and the Carpathia crew for their valiant efforts in the rescue operations.

Karl Behr and Dick Williams were later inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. An exhibit in their honor is on display at the Hall of Fame headquarters in Newport, RI.

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