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Titanic survivor spent her final years in Hunt Valley

Sinking of the Titanic (1912)MusicHotel and Accommodation Industry

To this day the hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee," is banned from the chapel at the Bonnie Blink retirement community at the Maryland Masonic Grand Lodge in Hunt Valley.

For Ada (Balls) Perine, who lived there from 1953 to her death in 1967, the song was simply too painful.

"Every time that particular hymn was played, she cried," said Edward Heimiller, curator of the library and museum on the Maryland Masonic Grand Lodge campus.

After many occasions witnessing Ada break down, the chaplain asked her why the song bothered her so.

She told him — and he ordered it never to be played again.

One hundred years ago this weekend, "Nearer My God to Thee" was the last song Ada heard from the band that was playing on the deck of the RMS Titanic after she boarded a lifeboat and was lowered to the waters below.

On her way to America to start a new life, Ada was caught in the tragedy marking its centennial anniversary this weekend, and found herself that night bidding farewell forever to her brother-in-law on the Titanic deck.

"We're all in God's hands now, honey," he told her just before they were separated.

She never saw him again.

The story of Ada Balls is one of two tales being recalled in a rare weekend exhibit, Saturday and Sunday, April 14-15, at the Stephen J. Ponzillo Jr. Memorial Library and Museum at the Grand Lodge of Masons in Maryland, 304 International Circle, Hunt Valley.

The other story depicted in the exhibit is that of Oscar Woody, a Virginia freemason who served as postal clerk on the Titanic, and who died in the disaster. His body was recovered a week later on April 22.

Woody was 44 years old ... barely.

His birthday was April 15.

'I'll never forget that awful sight'

Ada Balls (some references note her last name as Ball) had already experienced tragedy in her life when the events of April 14 and 15, 1912, added another load.

Born Ada E. Hall in 1875, in Bromley, Kent, England, she was married to Martin Luther Balls at the age of 21, in London in 1896.

The couple had two sons. Then Martin Luther died. At least one resource, the online "encyclopedia titanica," notes that Ada was listed in a 1901 census as "widow, a laundry washer."

Ada decided to emigrate to the United States to be near her sister, Emily, and brother-in-law, the Rev. Robert Bateman, and to help the two of them set up a mission in Jacksonville, Fla.

At age 36, she boarded the Titanic at Southampton on April 10, 1912, with a second-class ticket, accompanied by the Rev. Bateman.

Being on, as she called it, the "biggest vessel afloat" was no doubt exciting. In a 1963 transcript of an interview Ada gave at Bonnie Blink — Heimiller does not know where, or even if, it was published — she recalled that on the evening of April 14, just hours before the disaster, "I felt so happy."

"A half dozen of us were singing hymns, praising the Lord. When the band struck up for the banquet, we just kept on singing. The louder the band played, the louder we sang."

She and Bateman organized a prayer service for passengers in the second-class dining room. When they broke up at 10:30 p.m., she was, "gloriously happy, but terribly tired."

At 11:40 p.m., the Titanic struck an iceberg, breaching five of the ship's watertight compartments.

Ada was asleep, but was roused by cabin-mate Marie Jerwan, who told her, "We've had an accident, get up."

Bateman rushed in as well, telling her, "There's been a very terrible accident, and I'm afraid some of us are going to be hurt."

She grabbed her robe and followed Bateman to the deck.

When they got there, "women and children were screaming with the men trying to calm them," she recalled. She said she could see people praying and crying as they watched their loved ones leave in lifeboats — or jump in the water.

"I'll never forget that awful sight," she recalled.

She saw one "elderly" woman get into a boat — then climb back, insisting that she rejoin her husband and say, "I'm staying with you ...". That account corresponds with the story of Ida Straus, wife of Macy's department store owner Isidor Straus, who refused to leave her husband's side as the ship sank. Both were later seen sitting on deck chairs, holding hands. Both died.

Though women and children were the priority, Ada's account suggests Bateman gave up his seat in a lifeboat to her.

"I turned around to Dr. Bateman and said, 'Good-bye, Bob,' " she recalled in the 1963 interview, "and he embraced me saying, 'We're all in God's hands now, honey.' "

From New York to Hunt Valley

The Titanic sank at roughly 2:20 a.m. April 15.

Just over 700 people survived. More than 1,500 perished.

Ada Balls was among those picked up in lifeboats by the RMS Carpathia and taken to New York.

The Rev. Bateman's body was later recovered — Ada's sister was now a widow, too.

"It's hard to say what her condition was after the disaster." Heimiller said of Ada.

"She didn't remember the first two months after being rescued," he said. "She was quite lucky to have survived."

Her sons eventually came to America — one became a reverend in Massachusetts, the other settled in Baltimore. Her sister settled in Baltimore, too.

In 1922, Ada married William R. Perine, also of Baltimore. By all accounts they had a happy life, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in 1947. He was a member of a Masonic Lodge in Pasadena, Md., and so after his death in 1953, Ada was eligible to move into the Mason's Bonnie Blink facility.

For many years she actually shared a room there with her sister. Then in 1967, at age 92, Ada died. She's buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Baltimore, next to her second husband.

"We're very happy to have had Mrs. Balls as a resident," Heimiller said. "Her being here has had a lasting effect on us."

That's evident in the exhibit, and also in the chapel, where "Nearer My God to Three" won't be heard at services this weekend.

"We still don't play it in the chapel," Heimiller said.

Even 45 years after her death, and 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic, the words of a survivor still stand.

As Ada said in the 1963 interview, "I can't bear to hear it any more."

Displaying Titanic history

The Maryland Masons' exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster is free, and open to the general public, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.

The Masons have a number of artifacts on display such as photos, postcards and items found in Oscar Woody's pockets when his body was recovered from the sea — including a pocketknife, corroded by the sea and decorated with Masonic symbols, postal "facing slips," and other items. They have been left to the Maryland Masons by his late wife, Leelia Woody.

There aren't artifacts directly from Ada Balls-Perine. But the lodge has assembled information about her, and also has on display several photos and items depicting what life would have been like on the Titanic for a second-class passenger — from a fork made by the White Star Line for its cruise ships of that era to specially-made, intricate floor tiles that would have been seen on the passenger deck.

The display also includes a section of ornate wooden frieze panel from Titanic's sister ship, Olympic, that would have been similar to the wall decorations in the Titanic.

In addition to the exhibit, on Sunday at 6 p.m., the lodge will host a lecture by Dr. Robert Neyland, head of underwater archaeology for theU.S. Navy, who will discuss the War of 1812 ship, the USS Scorpion. That lecture is $10 at the door, and a reception ($55) will be held at 5 p.m.

For more details, or to reserve for the reception, call 410-527-0600.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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