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One hundred and eleven years ago, the world was learning the names of the 1,500+ people who died aboard the Titanic.
Among the dead were people from Philadelphia — including two members of one of Philly’s most prominent families, whose name is all over the city today and whose descendants once owned the Sixers.
The Inquirer noted the passing in a somber headline from April 27, 1912: “Three Philadelphians’ Bodies Identified.”
Who were they? Let’s back up. If you somehow missed the last century of popular culture, the RMS Titanic was a famed passenger ship that sank after hitting an iceberg during its maiden voyage.
Because of its renown, the ship carried many wealthy and famous travelers.
Probably the most famous Titanic victim was John Jacob Astor IV (below), one of America’s richest men. Isidor Straus co-owned Macy’s department store and served briefly in Congress.
And Philadelphia-born Benjamin Guggenheim belonged to the same family whose name adorns museums.
But likely the most prominent Philadelphians to die in the icy North Atlantic belonged to the ultra-wealthy Widener family.
If that name sounds familiar, here’s why:
Born in 1834, Peter Arrell Browne (P.A.B) Widener was the son of a Philadelphia butcher.
From those modest beginnings, he amassed a fortune — first selling mutton to the Union Army and later as a streetcar baron.
With his business partner William Elkins (namesake of Elkins Park, PA), Widener held stakes in U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, and several other Gilded Age behemoths.
According to one ranking, Widener was among the 30 richest Americans who ever lived.
The Widener and Elkins families cemented their bond with a landmark marriage.
In 1883, P.A.B. Widener’s eldest son, George Dunton Widener, married Eleanor Elkins, the youngest daughter of William Elkins.
To call them a Philadelphia power couple might be an understatement.
George Widener and Eleanor Elkins had three children together.
And in 1912, they were traveling in Europe with their eldest, Harry Widener, when they made a fateful decision.
They set out to return to America aboard the Titanic.
George and Harry perished in the North Atlantic.
Eleanor survived…along with two children who hadn’t taken the trip.
Because of the family’s prominence and wealth, you can still see traces of the Titanic in our region today.
Afterward, the Widener family donated millions to the Widener Memorial School — a public school at Broad and Olney Streets that continues to serve students w/disabilities.
Many decades later, Titanic survivor Eleanor Elkins Widener (George’s wife) became the namesake of Widener College in Chester, Pa. (now Widener University).
The school was named in Eleanor’s honor at the request of her grandson, Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr.
Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. was the son of Eleanor Widener, one of the two Widener children who DIDN’T travel with the family on the Titanic.
Dixon Jr. is probably best known for his connections to basically every major Philadelphia sports franchise.
Dixon Jr. was reportedly an investor in the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and Wings.
And in 1976 he purchased the Philadelphia 76ers.
Among his first moves was the acquisition of Sixers legend Julius “Dr. J.” Erving.
Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on April 27, 2023.
Disclosure: Fitz Dixon Jr. once served on the board of WHYY, Billy Penn’s parent company, and his widow, Edith Dixon, still provides financial support.