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Kit Gruelle of Boone displays some of her memorabilia relating to the life and death of her
great-grandfather, Robert Bateman, who perished during the sinking of the Titanic.

Originally published: 2012-04-15 10:13:20
Last modified: 2012-04-15 10:15:59

Boone woman reflects on great-grandfather's heroic life

by Sherrie Norris

This week's observance of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is more than a reflection of history for Kit Gruelle of Boone. 

The chivalrous actions of Gruelle's great-grandfather, the Rev. Robert James Bateman, in those final harrowing moments before his death, have been recorded in the chronicles of history, portraying him as a true Southern gentleman who died as he lived — helping others. 

According to Gruelle, who has gleaned information about her ancestor from various sources — including her mother and Bateman's own granddaughter, Betty Jane Bateman, who lives in Blairsville, Ga. — Bateman had been visiting relatives in Bristol, England, the land of his birth. He was on board the Titanic and was returning to Jacksonville, Fla., with his sister-in-law, Ada Balls, when the “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg with such force that it caused Titanic's hull plates to buckle inward and create a series of holes below the waterline. 

The two had boarded the Titanic at Southampton on April 10, 1912, and travelled second class, Bateman with ticket No. 1166. 

It is believed that in the early evening hours before the disaster, Bateman had held a worship service on board the ship and requested that the band play “Nearer, thy God to thee.”

As the sinking and rescue efforts began to take place, Bateman, who was 51, apparently relinquished his chance for survival by  insisting that his traveling companion take the last seat on a lifeboat. 

In interviews that followed, Balls, who lived through the event, was quoted as saying that she was one of the last passengers to abandon the ship. She said that as her lifeboat was lowered into the water, Bateman called out to her to, “Put your faith in God. If I don't meet you again in this world, I'll meet you in the next.” 

Then, he removed his scarf from around his neck and tossed it to her.

Bateman was among nearly three quarters of the Titanic's 2,233 passengers who perished in the incident.

Twelve days later, his body was discovered floating face down in the Atlantic Ocean, identified by his jewelry and the contents in his pockets — which included a gold watch and chain, a fountain pen, a lighter, gold cuff links and a Masonic charm pin. 

He was the 174th deceased passenger recovered. 

Most of the recovered bodies were either buried in mass graves in Nova Scotia, or at sea, but Bateman's body was among those 130 placed in coffins and transported from Nova Scotia to New York. Bateman's body was sent on to his family in Jacksonville, Fla., where it was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery.

As word of Bateman's death reached his family, the news had a profound impact on people for miles around. 

Not only was Bateman listed as “Florida's only Titanic victim,” but he was also known as one who had dedicated his life to serving others in the name of the Lord. 

Bateman had been associated with numerous ministries since coming to live in the United States many years earlier — stretching from Baltimore, to Knoxville and then to Jacksonville.

His final ministry, the Central City Mission, was a beacon of hope for many downtrodden individuals — providing not only food for their physical nourishment, but also, family history recounts, food for the spiritual well-being of individuals down on their luck.

It was no surprise, Gruelle, said, that hundreds attended his “hero style” memorial service in which 11 of his ministerial peers presided. 

Bateman had helped change countless lives through his ministry and left a strong heritage that lives on today.

Much has been written about Bateman's legacy and especially of his last efforts aboard the Titanic as it went down, Gruelle said, but it's through her family that she has gleaned the most credible information.  

“My mother grew up with Ada Balls, who eventually settled in the Baltimore area after the ordeal,” she said. “The sinking of the Titanic has always been one of those stories that lives large, but for my mom, who is now 88, it was always a matter-of-fact.”

A native of Bristol, England, Bateman was the son of cabinetmaker who travelled to America on several occasions during his youth and later, there to live and spread the gospel.

He became a minister at 21 and married Emily Jane Hall of London in early 1880. They had seven children.  

One of the most compelling details about her great-grandfather, Gruelle said, is that he reached out to those upon which society frowned, something that she has also been called to do. 

One publication described him as “one who cared for the people no one else cared about;” another labeled him as “a champion of the disadvantaged who fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless and helped wayward girls escape the brothels.”

In 1908, Bateman was appointed by Jacksonville's mayor to attend the National Conference of Charities in Richmond, Va., to help plan relief work. Afterward, he was invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the work.

As a self-described “old codger” at the age of 58, Gruelle finds it a “strange coincidence” that she would be walking with the young Appalachian State graduates in May, to accept her degree in sociology, with a concentration in violence against women. 

As she prepares to celebrate this major milestone, Gruelle said she feels “an even stranger connection” to Bateman, the ancestor she never knew, just as the details of his charitable life is back in the spotlight.

Perhaps, even more of a mystery, is that Gruelle never knew much about Bateman — or any of her biological family — until she was 35 years old. 

“I was adopted and never knew my birth mother until 23 years ago,” she said. “My adoptive father did tell me that one of my ancestors had perished on the Titanic, but that's all I knew.”

Gruelle, who grew up in Miami, had no idea that as a survivor of domestic violence, that she would spend 30 years advocating for battered women. Nor, did she know at the time, that she was following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather.   

In 2009, Gruelle moved to the North Carolina mountains, where she had visited as a child and enrolled as a student at ASU.

“It felt strange at first. It's almost like I have lived my life backward,” she said, “but the whole experience has been wonderful.”

In addition to the notoriety gained through her maternal great-grandfather, Gruelle's grandfather, through adoption, created Raggedy Ann and Andy.

She is a single mother of three and grandmother to another three who live in Asheville, Durham and Burlington.

It is with a sense of family pride that Gruelle honors her connection this week to Robert Bateman, his work and his last hours on the Titanic.