For years, two portraits of unknown family members hung on Barbara Dante’s wall.
The mystery couple puzzled her son, Dr. Joel Yelland, medical director for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who moved to Sequim 1½ years ago with his wife, Grace, to care for his mother.
Not until a few weeks ago did the mystery reveal itself: One of his brothers was watching a CNN report on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking when he saw Sharon Willing of Arizona speaking about her great-grandfather — Herbert Fuller Chaffee — who was Yelland’s great-grandfather, too.
Things clicked even more when Yelland saw a news story in The Chronicle Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in which Willing was holding a picture of her great-grandfather, the same photo as in Dante’s home.
“None of us had any idea,” Yelland said.
Chaffee went down in the sinking of the Titanic more than 100 years ago on April 15, 1912.
Yelland’s great-grandmother, Carrie Toogood Chaffee, survived the event; her husband had helped her into Lifeboat 4.
“It’s been family knowledge for a long time he went down with the ship and she survived,” Yelland said.
But he never connected it with the photos.
Chaffee, a North Dakota businessman, was traveling Europe with his wife before being summoned back to the states for work. They purchased tickets to travel back on the Titanic and stayed first-class in room E 31.
From what Yelland was told, his great-grandfather helped put his great-grandmother in a lifeboat and said, “See you soon.”
“As she looked up, she couldn’t see him as she was lowered into the water,” Yelland said.
Yelland’s grandmother, Adele Chaffee, was 12 when her father died, but they never spoke about the tragedy.
Willing, his newfound relative, is part of a whole branch of family he and his seven siblings didn’t
know about, Yelland said. He plans to make contact with her.
Yelland’s brother holds one special keepsake from their great-grandfather, a letter from his great-grandfather to his Aunt Betsey, another unknown relative, dated April 2, 1912, from the Grand Hotel Du Louvre in Paris. The letter mentions the Titanic twice, just days before the Chaffees left Europe.
“They had no idea they’d go down,” Yelland said.
He comes from a long naval tradition and ships always have held an interest for him.
“(The Titanic) is the greatest shipwreck story known,” he said.
This weekend Yelland performs three roles, including John Jacob Astor, in the Readers Theatre Plus world premiere of “The Last Lifeboat,” running Friday-Sunday, April 27-29 at the Old Dungeness Schoolhouse, 2781 Towne Road. In the play a reference is made to Lifeboat 4, in which his great-grandmother escaped.
Yelland said the play’s story is an interesting retelling of the Titanic that is more sympathetic to Jay Bruce Ismay, overseer of the ship.
“It shows he has tremendous guilt and tries to make it up to the families of those lost,” he said.
Yelland has performed in a few productions with the troupe and said it’s the first time his wife is acting on stage.
“It’s fascinating. Even if I wasn’t related to a passenger, it’s still interesting,” he said. “Even without that connection, I’d be a part of (the play).”
He doesn’t spend much time on the subject of the Titanic, Yelland said, but he’s read up on it and seen TV specials.
“With it being 100 years old means echoes are sill around,” he said. “They are still uncovering facts.”
Read a story about “The Last Lifeboat” on C-2.
Reach Matthew Nash at email@example.com.