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A Titanic obsession

What does a lifelong fascination with a doomed ship get you? If you’re Springfield’s Ed Kamuda, a walk-on part alongside Leo and Kate, and one of the world’s most complete archives of the century-old disaster.

Cork Examiner
The Titanic in Ireland’s Cork Harbor, its final port of call, in April 1912.

If he’d seen the iceberg sooner, as a lookout was supposed to, no one would have ever heard of Frederick Fleet. But the grandest ship afloat had never issued him binoculars. And by the time Fleet warned the bridge of the Titanic, “Iceberg, right ahead!” the ship was already doomed.

Fleet continued with his duties on that fateful night, 100 years ago this week, and manned a lifeboat. So, unlike 1,517 passengers and crew members, he lived. Later, however, he struggled with family and money problems and committed suicide in 1965.

The Titanic’s final victim, as some accounts called him, did one thing before he hanged himself from a clothesline in his garden in Southampton, England: He composed a letter to a watchmaker in the Indian Orchard section of Springfield, Massachusetts. “My dear friend,” he wrote. “Just a few lines to let you know I am in deep trouble.”

Russ Mezikofsky
Kamuda’s Titanic museum contains more than 2,000 items linked to the disaster.
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The lookout’s last warning was addressed to Ed Kamuda, an unlikely keeper of the Titanic’s haunting legacy. When it arrived, Kamuda had only just learned Fleet was dead. With shaking hands, he took the letter to the back room of his little jewelry shop in the landlocked suburb where he has lived all his life and added it to a collection of what would become more than 2,000 items linked to the disaster. Then he set about raising money for a headstone to mark the pauper’s grave where Fleet was buried.

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With no personal connection to the tragedy other than a fascination that began when he read a short story about it as a teenager, Ed Kamuda, now 72, has been for more than 50 years a quiet, self-appointed guardian of the Titanic’s memory. He’s not a scientist or a historian. He isn’t after fame, of which he hasn’t had much, or money, of which he has even less. But he’s been an inspiration behind the likes of undersea explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the ship in 1985, and film director James Cameron, who made the story one of the most widely watched in the history of movies.

Grateful for his help with the historical details, Cameron cast a reluctant Kamuda and his wife, Karen, as extras in the 1997 movie (now back in theaters as Titanic 3D). You can see them for a few seconds strolling on the promenade in period dress while Leonardo DiCaprio shows Kate Winslet how to spit. “Because of these two people,” Cameron pronounced before shooting the scene, “we are here today.”

“He’s the soul of this story, and has been since long before it was popular,” says Ballard, for whose expeditions Kamuda also provided research. Because of Kamuda, Ballard says, the story of the Titanic “went beyond being just about technology and became a living, breathing thing.”

That’s because Kamuda isn’t interested in what made the Titanic sink, the subject of countless cable-TV documentaries. His obsession is with the people who were lost aboard it, and with those who were saved — many of them widowed and orphaned by a chivalry that protected women and children first, then left them adrift in their lifetimes. “Can you imagine the plight of a woman who was saved along with her children, but whose husband went down with the ship?” Kamuda asks, puttering around the room that holds his collection, his uniform a cardigan sweater, a Titanic tie clip, and sensible shoes. Many of the women were left destitute. Kamuda says he has always had “a strange fascination with what went through these people’s minds. And I was curious about what had become of them.”

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In 1963, Kamuda founded Titanic Enthusiasts of America, a name he changed to Titanic Historical Society when the widow of one victim questioned his “enthusiasm” for the mass disaster. Although he says his memory is growing dim, Kamuda remains a walking encyclopedia of the Titanic, reflexively reciting names, nationalities, and fates of passengers and crew, and lifeboat numbers of the ones who lived. His society runs conferences and publishes a journal that manages, a century after the fact, to be full of new discoveries about the people who sailed on the ship. Membership has ebbed and flowed, rising to 9,000 when the Cameron movie came out — a flood of attention that put Kamuda in the hospital with exhaustion — and leveling out at 3,500 now.

Ballard compares many society members to Civil War buffs. “They like to wear the costumes and play the roles.” They celebrate a time when the trip was as important as the destination. “These luxury liners were all about this great, wonderful passage that I think people long for,” Ballard says.

Kamuda’s fascination with the Titanic began four decades after it sank, when he was drawn to a watercolor illustration of the liner in a story that he read in middle school, “A Great Ship Goes Down,” by Hanson Baldwin. Then, in Indian Orchard’s old Grand Theater, he saw the 1953 film Titanic, starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. A promotional poster for the movie is a part of the collection Kamuda has acquired, mostly from survivors and their families with whom he started corresponding during a time when almost no one else cared about them.

In addition to the store he would inherit, Kamuda’s family also owned the theater, a connection that enabled him to get a list of the survivors and their mailing addresses from the studio that produced a later Titanic movie, 1958’s A Night to Remember. That list is in Kamuda’s collection, too, with his careful checkmarks next to every one of the 83 names on the yellowing pages. Eighty wrote back, many beginning long, improbable friendships with Kamuda. As they died, they left him what they’d taken from the ship. (Kamuda’s own will stipulates that the materials be preserved, and never sold, despite the high value of authentic Titanic ephemera; in 2007, a life preserver sold at auction for $119,000.)

Kamuda’s collection, the largest outside those gathered by salvagers from the sunken wreck itself, is meticulously organized and displayed in mismatched cases bearing homemade labels. It includes a scrap of carpet from a stateroom saved by a steward, a deck chair, and a breakfast menu from the ship that was discovered in the pocket of a corpse. One survivor gave Kamuda a tooth that had bothered her during the trip, and the son of a medical assistant aboard the Carpathia, which steamed to the rescue, donated Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s life jacket, a crown jewel of Kamuda’s collection. Most of these items are on loan to museums, including the life jacket and the deck chair, but there are enough ship models, telegrams, and other objects still crowding the tidy but cluttered back room of Kamuda’s shop to cover every wall and surface and spill out into the shop itself.

Russ Mezikofsky
Items at the Titanic Historical Society.
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That collection also includes photographs and letters mailed from the ship before it hit the iceberg and then sank on April 15, 1912. “It is as firm as a rock,” reads one note, sent ashore by survivor Edwina Troutt when the Titanic stopped in Queenstown, Ireland. After an earlier near collision in Southampton Harbor, she wrote, “I was beginning to regret being upon her, but she seems alright now.” Some 6,000 to 8,000 people a year visit Kamuda’s museum, including schoolchildren on field trips, at the not particularly Hollywood prices of $4 apiece for adults and $2 for kids.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary, Kamuda and his historical society plan to gather at the Castle of the Knights in Springfield for a meal of dishes served on the Titanic, including poached salmon, roast squab, and pate de foie gras. They will also unveil a 100th-anniversary memorial to the victims in Springfield’s Oak Grove Cemetery.

The real gravesite, says Kamuda, is the wreck itself. And he’s been uncharacteristically vocal about the salvagers who’ve taken artifacts from the wreck as it disintegrates on the bottom of the North Atlantic. “It’s like going into a cemetery and knocking over gravestones,” he says. A memorial plaque left there by Ballard on behalf of Kamuda’s historical society mysteriously disappeared, and both men believe salvagers took it in retribution for his longtime hostility to them. Kamuda had a new plaque made, which Ballard took to the wreck site on another visit.

Three of the people whose remains are now with the Titanic did not go down with the ship. They survived but had their ashes scattered in the ocean above the wreckage. The widow of Frank Goldsmith—saved when he was 7, but whose father drowned — asked Kamuda to arrange for this, which he did with great effort but little fanfare.

He wants the ship and its people — all now dead — to be remembered accurately, he says, and with respect. And everybody else to take this lesson from the epic story: “That nothing,” Ed Kamuda says, “is ever certain.”

> The Titanic Museum, 208 Main Street, Indian Orchard, 413-543-4770, titanic1.org/museum

Jon Marcus, a freelance writer and editor, is a frequent Globe Magazine contributor. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.