Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Dorothy Utahna Tidwell, Age 12, to the Rescue

Dorothy Utahna Tidwell, Age 12, to the Rescue

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 26, 2011

Clara Jane Lloyd never had any trouble remembering that Utah was admitted to the Union on January 4, 1896 – she was born two minutes after the official moment of statehood. Clara was born to an LDS family and grew up in the south end of Salt Lake Valley. She married Leroy J. Tidwell in 1915. He is harder to identify – I know he was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and he was probably the man of that name who was a deputy sheriff in the mining camps of Salt Lake County; I don’t think he was LDS.

By 1938, the Tidwell family was living in New Madrid, Missouri, a river town located where Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet. (Although it has absolutely nothing to do with this story, if you’re trying to place the name “New Madrid” you’re probably recalling having heard about the series of 1811-12 earthquakes centered near there, the most powerful ever recorded in the eastern United States. The shocks were so strong that the Mississippi River apparently flowed backward for a short time, dust filled the air and obscured the sun, and damage was reported as far away as Toronto and Maine.)

Leeroy was working for the railroad at New Madrid in 1938, and Clara was mothering five young daughters (Dorothy Utahna, 12; Virginia, 9; Billie Jean, 7; Norma Lee, 6; and Anna, 2) and their three older brothers. The family owned a large car, which they normally kept locked when it was parked near their home on the bank of the Mississippi River. Locking the car didn’t do much good, though, when the glass had been broken out of one of the windows, and the younger girls liked to crawl through the open window and play in the car.

Virginia, Billie Jean, and Norma Lee were playing in the car on June 27, 1938, when one of them managed to release the brake. The car, parked on a slope, began to move. Clara and 12-year-old Dorothy noticed the movement of the car and saw that the little girls were inside, and both ran toward the car. The car had picked up enough speed by then that it knocked Clara to the ground, but Dorothy jumped onto the running board and stayed with the car as it rolled. First Billie Jean, then Virginia, climbed out of the broken window with Dorothy’s help. But 6-year-old Norma Lee was still inside as the car hit the water, moving with enough speed that it landed 18 feet out in the river. Somehow Dorothy clung to the car.

Norma Lee did not appear at the window as her sisters had, so Dorothy climbed through the window into the sinking car. It was fully submerged by the time Dorothy found her sister and pushed her out of the window, climbing out after her. Holding her little sister tightly, Dorothy swam the 18 feet through the river to the cheers of onlookers who had begun to gather in response to Clara’s screams for help.

Father Leeroy had arrived by that time, and fearing that 2-year-old Anna was inside the car, he plunged into the river and swam out to the sunken car. By the time he had determined that no more children were in the car, he was exhausted and had to be rescued by some of those who had gathered.

The story of Dorothy’s heroism and successful rescue of three of her sisters caught the imagination of the public. I’ve been able to find the story in the newspapers of several states. Those papers sometimes mistakenly report that little Anna was in the car and had to be resuscitated. They get most of the details right, though – but only one of them reports the little bit of news that interests me today:

On August 3, five weeks after the accident and rescue, Dorothy and Virginia were baptized by LDS missionaries who had recently been calling on the family in an effort to revive their interest in the religion of Clara’s youth. (I do not know whether Dorothy’s older brothers were baptized previously, or ever; New Family Search shows that baptisms for the dead for most of the siblings, including Virginia, was done in 2011, so that source cannot be trusted on this point.)

Dorothy married Jared Edmond Wootton in 1942, raised a son and a daughter, and died in Milwaukee in 1972.



  1. There was a woman named Utahna in the stake I grew up in.

    Comment by KLC — September 26, 2011 @ 8:35 am

  2. The other thing about New Madrid that you left out is that it’s not pronounced the way we Yankees generally pronounce the capital city of Spain. In Missouri, it’s MAD-drid.

    Completely irrelevant to the story, of course.

    But, about the story, isn’t it time to bring back running boards?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 26, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  3. I’ll make the posters: “Running Boards Save Lives.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 26, 2011 @ 10:26 am

  4. Great story!

    Comment by Jami — September 26, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  5. It was so great to find this story! My husband is the grandson of Norma Lee Tidwell. He had never heard this story. We are actively searching for genealogy information on her father, Leroy Jackson Tidwell, and stumbled across this article. Such a treat!

    Comment by Jennifer B. — November 7, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

  6. Well, you made my day, Jennifer! I love giving someone back a piece of their family history!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 7, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  7. I am Anna’s daughter. My mother was their youngest child. I have 4 brothers. I have the last known picture of my grandmother Clara in it’s original locket. Dorothy was my aunt. We called her Aunt Utahna, I have some special pictures of her visiting us in California before she passed. I also have pictures of Norma and her children I never met. Thank you for this article it means the world to me.
    ~ Catherine

    Comment by Catherine melanson — December 24, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

  8. Merry Christmas, Catherine. So glad you found this, and commented.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 24, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  9. Hi! I am Leroy Jackson Tidwell’s grand daughter! My father was Freddie Lee Tidwell, who passed from illness February of this year, 2014. He was born in Kansas. My grandmother was Annie Bell Beard. I understand that my grandfather was first married to a Clara, from Oklahoma? My father has two blood sisters, twins, left alive named Patty and Peggy Tidwell of Fairview, TN. ( Both married with new last names). Its interesting to find the story of Dorothy Tidwell and her siblings! Are they my relatives? My unknown Aunts and Uncles?!! Anyone with information, please email me at

    Comment by Kelley Bizwell (Tidwell) — March 10, 2014 @ 2:45 am

  10. I am also Leroy Jackson Tidwell’s grand daughter!!! This story was so moving to me….I am the twin to Kelley Bizwell ( above)

    Comment by Shelley Tidwell Thornton — March 11, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

  11. Sisters — I’m not a member of the family and so can’t offer information, or even confirm that this is the same LJTidwell, but I’m glad to hear from you and know you enjoyed this. If another relative ever happens to comment with more information, I’ll try to put you all in touch with each other.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 11, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

  12. Ardis, thanks that means a lot. Our father just passed and we would love to meet more of his family. I’m quite sure that this is the same Leeroy. My father had spoken of his sisters before to his youngest sister, Tammy. The names were the same. Also, my grandfather worked for a railroad company before he met my grandmother, Annie.

    Comment by Kelley Bizwell (Tidwell) — March 30, 2014 @ 11:07 pm

  13. Hi All,

    Yes my grandfather Leroy worked on the railroad.
    Yes my grandfather Leroy remarried after my grandmother Clara Jane passed. He married Annie.
    My mother lived with them for a short period before she went to live with other family.

    Yes my mother Anna was in the car-to clear things up. I have the original article that was clipped and given to her by her mother.

    I have pictures of Norma Jean when she was young with her children- passed down from my mother Anna Lee Tidwell.

    My mother passed on 1-24-2014. She had remarried and her name on memorial was
    Anna L. Otis- she passed in Hemet, CA

    Thank you for the Christmas wishes Ardis Parshall back on 12/2013. I just saw them today :)

    My grandparents are buried in Osawatomie, Kansas if you google it. There are 2 pictures of the TIDWELL gravesite as well.

    It is nice to hear so many family members (descendants) are out there from Leroy & Clara Jane as well as Leroy and Annie :)

    Many hugs and well wishes to all
    Catherine Melanson (Anna Tidwell’s daughter)

    Comment by Catherine Ann Melanson — September 17, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

  14. BTW ~

    regarding my grandmother
    Clara Jane Lloyd – Tidwell

    her parents were:

    John Lloyd (1856 – 1919)
    Ruth Goff Lloyd (1859 – 1907)

    from England

    my youngest brother is named John*


    Comment by Catherine Ann Melanson — September 17, 2014 @ 5:38 pm


    Ruth Goff – Mother of John Lloyd

    Grandmother of Clara Jane Lloyd


    from England

    Comment by Catherine Ann Melanson — September 17, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

  16. John Lloyd was born in Wales

    I have other documentation but this will also help you find links to move around and find more information :)

    Comment by Catherine Ann Melanson — September 17, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

  17. I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. Leroy and Clara were my great-grandparents, and Norma Lee Tidwell was my grandmother. I have been searching for information regarding the Tidwell side of my family, and would love to learn what anyone may be able to share. I do have some photos of Leroy and Annie Bell that I would be willing to share with whoever might want to see them. I would love to see what pictures any of you may have as well.

    Comment by Sherman (Chebon) Blalock — November 24, 2014 @ 11:00 pm

  18. I can be contacted at

    Comment by Sherman (Chebon) Blalock — November 24, 2014 @ 11:05 pm

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