Burtis John Dolan, born August 15th, 1890, was Vice President of the Lelong Importing Company in Chicago. The son of Andrew E. Dolan, an accountant, and his wife Catherine "Kitty" Dolan, Bert Dolan grew up in Chicago's DePaul neighborhood and attended Illinois and DePaul Universities, where he got a law degree. He was a compact (5'7", 140 pounds) and athletic young man, and was a skillful enough baseball player that he once got a tryout with the Chicago Cubs. He was also quite a golfer, his love of the game having led to a friendship with famous amateur golfer Chick Evans.
In January of 1913, Dolan met a young woman named Mildred Philbin (whose birthday, August 11th, was only a few days apart from Dolan's own) and began what was to be a nine-year courtship. Mildred's aunt, who had raised her, strongly disapproved of the relationship between her 17 year-old niece and the 22 year-old Dolan, going so far as to put Mildred in boarding school to try and separate them. In the end, Bert Dolan and Mildred Philbin eloped, marrying on February 8th, 1922 and eventually becoming the parents of four children: Mary Alice, Burtis, Jr., Mildred, and James.
Though Dolan had a law degree, he chose not to practice. Instead, the gregarious Dolan went into sales, spent some time in real estate, and then became secretary to Nelson Morris, grandson and namesake of the founder of Morris & Co., one of Chicago's leading meat packers. Through their work together, Morris and Dolan developed a lasting friendship.
Bert Dolan served in the U.S. Army as a cavalry officer, volunteering for the force that went to Mexico in 1916, under General John J. Pershing, to capture the bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa in what came to be known as the Punitive Expedition. Dolan later served in France as a Major after the United States entered World War I.
Following the war, Dolan worked as vice president of a sign and advertising company before returning to work for Morris & Co. When the company was bought out by Armour & Co. in 1925, Dolan went along to Armour where he worked as a department manager.
Among Nelson Morris' financial interests was a stake in LeLong Importing Company, a subsidiary of Lucien Lelong, Inc., prominent perfume company based in Paris. In 1936, when Lelong Importing needed a new vice president, Morris thought of Bert Dolan to fill the position, as he had developed a strong respect for Dolan's abilities as a businessman. Dolan got the job, and oversaw the company's Chicago offices, which were located in the Pittsfield Building in Chicago's Loop. Lelong imported the essential oils for perfumes sold under the Lucien Lelong trademark, including well-known brands such as "Mon Image," "Indiscrete," "Tailspin," and "Balalaika."
In late December of 1936, Bert Dolan's younger brother Leslie passed away, and the family held his funeral on the day after Christmas, beginning at their home at 734 Kenesaw Terrace (now known as Hutchinson St.), in Chicago's northside Lakeview neighborhood, and moving on to St. Mary of the Lake Church. Less than a month later, on January 16th, 1937, Dolan had to leave for Europe on an extended business trip that would take him to London and Paris. His wife and children accompanied him to Chicago's LaSalle St. Station to see him off as he took a train to New York to begin his journey. Mildred, who had made her husband promise not to fly during his trip due to her own fear of flying, pressed a rosary into his hand, asking that he keep it with him until he was safely home.
For the next three and a half months, Dolan's schedule was packed. His assignment in Europe was to reorganize the Lelong offices in London and Paris. This included hiring and firing personnel and getting the offices running more smoothly in general. During that time, he wrote his wife and children frequent letters about his experiences in Europe, about his endless schedule of meetings, of trying to occasionally squeeze in an afternoon at a museum, and of how the too-rich food would often cause him to have to, he joked, "take the medicine chest."
By the end of April, Bert Dolan was finishing up his work at the Paris office, and was planning to return to the United States in early May, having already booked passage on a steamship. His old friend Nelson Morris also happened to be in Paris at the time, vacationing with his wife, French actress Blanche Bilboa. Morris had to return to Chicago for a couple of weeks for business reasons, and had purchased a round-trip ticket on the German airship Hindenburg for the first week in May, intending to return to Blanche in Paris on the 17th, again via the Hindenburg.
Morris, therefore, suggested to Dolan that he cancel his steamship booking and instead fly home with him aboard the Hindenburg. Morris had flown twice aboard the Hindenburg's sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, and he told Dolan of the comfort and the unique experience of crossing the ocean by Zeppelin. Dolan, however, had promised his wife that he wouldn't fly during his Europe trip. Morris then reminded Dolan that if he flew on the Hindenburg, he'd be home in time for Mother's Day on May 9th. Morris suggested that he cover the difference in fare between Dolan’s steamship ticket and his $400 one-way Zeppelin ticket, and that Dolan would cover Morris’ onboard bar tab in return.
Dolan finally relented, tempted by the once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly across the ocean by Zeppelin, and by the opportunity to surprise his family by walking in the front door several days earlier than expected. He and Morris decided, therefore, to keep their plans a secret, cabling only Morris' brother Edward, who was also a good friend of the Dolan family. Edward Morris was told that his brother Nelson would be bringing Bert Dolan along with him on the Hindenburg, but that he wasn't to say a word about it to anyone, especially Dolan's wife, Mildred.
Bert Dolan and Nelson Morris, therefore, embarked on the Hindenburg at Rhein-Main Flughafen in Frankfurt, Germany on the evening of May 3rd, 1937. It was a comparatively uneventful, even lackluster crossing by most standards, with the ship's passenger accommodations being only half full and the weather being so bad that there wasn't much for the passengers to see until the second day of the trip when the sky cleared enough off the coast of Newfoundland for them to watch a field of icebergs passing by directly below them. Dolan and Morris, who was a chain smoker, spent a great deal of time in the Hindenburg's pressurized smoking room and bar, socializing and debating the news of the day with their fellow passengers, including two fellow Chicagoans, Herbert O'Laughlin and Clifford Osbun. Dolan and Morris were also given a private tour of the ship by one of the ship's stewards.
Dolan also took time in the Hindenburg's writing room, on the starboard side of the main passenger deck, to write quite a few postcards to family, friends, and business associates, to be sent via pneumatic tube to the ship's onboard post office where it would be stamped and added to the bags of mail to be sent on via ground post after the ship landed. The postcards would all arrive after Dolan was already home in Chicago, of course, but they would be unique souvenirs for the recipients.
He had also written a letter to his wife, unstamped and marked “strictly personal",” which he kept in the pocket of his suit jacket instead of dropping it in the ship's mail. In it, he told Mildred, "I know I promised not to fly on this trip, but this was an opportunity I had to take. If anything happens to me, none of us know the Lord’s will."
As the Hindenburg finally came in to land at the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, NJ on the evening of May 6th, Nelson Morris and Bert Dolan were watching landing operations from the observation windows alongside the starboard passenger lounge. The airship was more than half a day behind schedule, having been delayed by headwinds over the ocean. However, even with the delay Dolan was still getting home several days earlier than he would have had he kept his steamship booking, as Morris had promised he would. On the ship's first northward pass over the Lakehurst mooring circle, Morris and Dolan looked down on the air station's airplane hangars, where they would shortly catch an American Airlines DC-3 for Newark. The two men hoped to make a connection from Newark to Chicago that night via one of American's DST "Skysleepers." If they couldn't, then they intended to stay overnight in New York and catch the first flight home in the morning.
After circling the air station, the ship turned to line itself up with the ground crew. As it hovered over the field a gust of wind pushed it off to the right of the mooring mast, and quite a few of the passengers walked over to the portside windows to get a better look at the final landing maneuver. A number of passengers, however, remained on the starboard side, including Morris and Dolan, who stood at one of the forwardmost observation windows near the writing room, watching the ground crew connecting up the airship's landing ropes.
Suddenly, they heard an explosion. Morris would later liken the sound in volume, though not in actual detail, to that of "a regular service rifle" fired from a distance of 15 to 20 feet. The concussion was not enough to throw the two men off their feet, but as the ship's tail began to drop and the floor inclined to about 45 degrees, Dolan and Morris were forced to hold onto a nearby post to keep from sliding aft.
As the ship neared the ground, Dolan and Morris prepared to escape through the nearest window. Dolan took Mildred's rosary from his pocket and held it tightly as he waited to jump. Unfortunately, the ship's hull rolled slightly to starboard as it hit the ground, and wreckage was already starting to fall in front of the starboard observation windows as Morris jumped, followed closely by Dolan.
A maze of girders and wires surrounded the two men as they landed on the sandy ground below, and they began to make their way through. Morris would later recall breaking metal rods "like paper" to clear his path. Unfortunately, when he finally made it clear of the wreckage, Bert Dolan was nowhere to be seen. He had been trapped somewhere in the red-hot mass of twisted metal, and never made it out. Morris tried several times to re-enter the wreck to find his old friend, but to no avail.
In Chicago, Edward Morris was driving in his car listening to the radio when an announcer broke in with a news bulletin about the Hindenburg having just exploded while landing, with no word yet about survivors. Stunned by the news, and remembering that he was the only one who knew that Bert Dolan had been on the airship along with his brother Nelson, a distraught Edward Morris drove straight over to the Dolan house. Dolan's eldest daughter Mary Alice answered the door, and Morris asked to speak to her Mrs. Dolan, who was upstairs with Bert's mother. Mildred Dolan came walking down the stairs and before she'd reached the bottom Morris, in his current state of mind rather thoughtlessly neglecting to prepare Mrs. Dolan for the news, simply blurted out, "Brace yourself Mildred. Bert's gone down with the Hindenburg!"
Dolan's mother Catherine, who had been living with Bert and Mildred since the death of Bert's father in 1934, had come to the top of the stairs to see what the commotion was about. As Edward Morris explained that Bert had been aboard the Hindenburg with Nelson, and that the ship had just crashed, Catherine Dolan (who had just buried a son less than six months before) fainted.
Mildred Dolan at first refused to believe that her husband had been on the Zeppelin, and telephoned anyone she could think of who might be able to get access to the ship's passenger list. But information from Lakehurst was sketchy and incomplete, and all the family could do was to listen to the radio and wait.
As the evening wore on, they began to hear reports that there had been survivors. There was however, as yet, no confirmation that Bert had been onboard. It wasn't until the family went to early morning Mass the next day and picked up the morning newspapers that they learned that Bert had been on the official passenger list. Unfortunately, he was also listed as being among the missing rather than among the survivors. However with the papers telling of passengers having jumped from the Hindenburg's windows and surviving, the family had one last bit of hope that Bert, athletic as he was, had managed to escape.
That afternoon, however, a priest finally telephoned Mildred from New Jersey with the news that Bert was indeed dead. The priest had given him last rites the night before, and he had been identified by his passport. Bert's hand still held the rosary that Mildred had given him as he left for his trip almost four months before.
The following day, May 8th, Bert Dolan's body was returned to Chicago. What few of his personal effects there were were also returned. In addition to the rosary, there was Dolan's watch and his passport – and, scorched but still readable, the letter he had written to Mildred while onboard the Hindenburg.
Burtis John Dolan was laid to rest two days later on May 10th, 1937. As they had with his brother Leslie, the family held Bert's wake at their home on Kenesaw Terrace, and then held the funeral at the family's church, St. Mary of the Lake. It was a full military funeral, with Major Dolan's coffin passing into the church under crossed swords. At Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, just north of Chicago, Bert was interred to the sound of Taps and a 21-rifle salute. Thereafter, the flag from his coffin would fly at the Dolan house on national holidays.
Nelson Morris, who escaped the Hindenburg crash with little more than burns to his hands, saw to it that the family continued to receive income from Dolan's share in the Lelong Importing Company, and furthermore set up a trust fund for the children. Mildred Dolan sold the family home in 1953 after her children had grown, and continued to live in Chicago for the rest of her life, though she never remarried. Bert Jr. later recalled her as a "sprightly lady" who drove a car right up until a few days before her death in February of 1981 at the age of 85.
Very special thanks to Dennis Kromm, whose in-depth research on Bert Dolan's life - as well as the circumstances of his death - forms the basis of the majority of this article. Mr. Kromm's research on Mr. Dolan, conducted in the early 1980s, has heretofore received only very limited publication, and I feel privileged to be able to present it here, and to expand upon it in several instances where bits of additional information were available to me.
As part of his research, Mr. Kromm interviewed three of Mr. Dolan's children, Mary Alice Mansfield, Mildred Sullivan, and Burtis J. Dolan, Jr. (James Dolan had passed away from cancer as a young man) and he wishes to express his gratitude to them for having shared personal and in some cases deeply painful family memories with him.