September 7, 2023 at 6:00 a.m.

Tommy and the two pennies

Millar gives presentation on Titanic, family connection to the ship

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For most people, the Titanic is merely a byword for disaster. For Susie Millar, president of the Belfast Titanic Society, the famous shipwreck is part of her family history and the legacy of her hometown, Belfast, Ireland.

“It’s been a journey for us there,” Susie said. “Up until about 25 years ago, we didn’t really talk about Titanic. … We find it hard to process the Titanic story.”

Susie gave a presentation on the Titanic, her family connection to it and its legacy Aug. 31 at the Margaret Shelby Theatre in Sauk Centre.

After an introduction by her husband, David Meyer – a native of Sauk Centre and Sauk Centre High School Class of 1986 member – she introduced the audience of over 100 to her great-grandfather, Tommy Millar. Tommy was the first of his family to leave the rural life and pursue a career in Belfast, a shipbuilding and industry center in the early 20th century. According to records, he was a carpenter for Harland and Wolff shipbuilders before he met his wife Jane, but he later became a fitter, building engine components for the Titanic.

“(Harland and Wolff shipyard) was the biggest in the world,” Susie said. “Still today, in terms of the tonnage it put out, it was the biggest of the 20th century. Over 1,700 ships were built by Harland and Wolff, and yet the only one anyone remembers is the one you could say failed.”

Jane and Tommy had two sons, one of whom was Susie’s grandfather, Ruddick Millar, who would one day become an author and playwright. His short stories illustrated what his early life was like. For instance, his father would often carve wooden figures for his sons while at work, bringing them home and hiding them in the sugar bowl for his sons to discover at tea time.

Susie also passed around Tommy’s time board, a little wooden card, which functioned like a time card when Tommy worked at Harland and Wolff. His number was 901.

When Jane died of tuberculosis in 1912, Tommy decided his family needed a fresh start in America, so he became an engineer with the White Star Line and joined the Titanic’s crew. His plan was to sail to America on his own to find his family somewhere to live before coming back to get them, so he left his sons in the care of their aunt Mary.

“Tommy decided to cope with (saying goodbye) in an unusual way,” Susie said. “Before he boarded the ship, he took his two sons to one side and said, ‘Be good for Aunt Mary; she’s going to be looking after you. I’ll see you again in two months’ time. In the meantime, I want you to have something.’ … Each of the boys was given two 1912 pennies, and Tommy said, ‘Don’t spend those until we’re all together again.’”

That reunion was never to happen, for the Titanic’s maiden voyage ended when it hit an iceberg and sank April 15, 1912. Being one of the crew, Tommy would not have been on a lifeboat and went down with the ship.

“I imagine that, at the very last, he was probably putting people into lifeboats, helping lower those lifeboats and trying to keep a cool head, knowing he wasn’t going to have a space in that lifeboat and probably thinking to himself that, in trying to give his children a better start in life, he’d actually ended up leaving them orphaned through no fault of his own at all,” Susie said.

The remaining family learned about the disaster through the news, but more time would pass before they received the official word that Tommy was not among the survivors. It was Ruddick’s cousin Ella who broke the news to him while he was sailing a paper boat, and it hit a rock and tipped over.

Ruddick never spent the two pennies his father gave him. They are currently in long-term loan at the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri. Tommy’s body was not recovered, but his name was added to his wife’s tombstone, and it also appears today on several Titanic memorials in England and Ireland.

Rupert Millar, Ruddick’s son and Susie’s father, founded the Belfast Titanic Society in 1992 to research and preserve the history of the Titanic and other White Star Line ships built in Belfast. As the president of the organization, Susie was on the 100th anniversary memorial cruise that sailed the Titanic’s route in 2012, and on April 15, it floated over the site where the ship went down.

“For me, it wasn’t about being above the wreck at that time,” Susie said. “It was about completing Tommy’s journey for him, for someone from his family to make it across the sea, to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and to see (the Statue of Liberty) as he would have done in 1912 had he made it.”

Susie has seen and touched pieces of the Titanic, including a large piece of sheet metal that is displayed in Las Vegas. Around her neck, though, she keeps a locket containing a small piece of the doomed ship her great-grandfather helped build.

“It would be great if (Belfast) could get a piece of Titanic’s hull back to where she started life,” Susie said. “That’s going to be my next project, to try to make that happen over the next few years as president of the Belfast Titanic Society.”

After her talk, Susie answered questions and signed copies of her book “The Two Pennies,” sharing more of the story of her great-grandfather and his last voyage.

“I’m sure (Tommy) never thought his great-granddaughter would be in places like Sauk Centre, talking to folks like yourself about him,” Susie said. “I think he would be totally embarrassed at how his name gets bandied about now, just as a sort of everyman who represents all those good folk who were on Titanic for the right reasons and were caught up in circumstances totally beyond their control.”


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