Re-enactor brings passionate portrayal of ship's chief officer to Titanic exhibit

Dressed as Chief Officer Henry Wilde of the Titanic, Bill Nordan described witness accounts of the ship's sinking to visitors at the Titanic exhibit at the Lexington Center Museum and Gallery. Top: A flag from the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, provided by Nordan.
Dressed as Chief Officer Henry Wilde of the Titanic, Bill Nordan described witness accounts of the ship's sinking to visitors at the Titanic exhibit at the Lexington Center Museum and Gallery. Top: A flag from the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic, provided by Nordan. Lexington Herald-Leader

Bill Nordan is in his zone.

Standing in front of a replica of the swankiest stateroom on the Titanic, he's in character as Chief Officer Henry Wilde and talking up the virtues of the plush décor with the smooth patter of a car salesman with a quota to fill.

His naval uniform is tailored just so; the gold threads of the cuffs catch the dim light from the ornate wall lamps. He points out that as one of the chi-chi-est of the Titanic's wealthy passengers, your floating home-away-from-home would be customized to your every whim. If your favorite color is blue, the wall panels, the bed linens, the settee would be changed to reflect your preferred hue.

For an instant, although you know how badly this travel story ends, you want to book that passage. You want those blue paneled walls and fancy blue sheets and the stateroom with stewards whom you can beckon to open the porthole. You want to live in the world Nordan is inhabiting so completely.

When Nordan is in, he is all in.

Nordan's Chief Officer Wilde has become a celebrated addition to the Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Lexington Center Museum and Gallery. The exhibit ends Sunday. Krista Greathouse, the exhibit coordinator, said Nordan, 56, has made a lasting impression.

She noted that the exhibit is designed to put people in the midst of the story. Each visitor is given a boarding pass with a real passenger's name. At the end, they may see whether they are among the 705 saved or the 1,523 lost.

Nordan, Greathouse said, "helps take it to a whole other level."

For one thing, his ensemble, an authentic 1909 British Navy uniform, is spot-on. (Officers of the White Star Line, the shipping company that owned the Titanic, wore uniforms that mimicked the navy's.)

"He visually engages you from the onset," Greathouse said of the volunteer who has put in more than 140 hours. "He wants to engage the public, and that's huge."

And, she said, that's especially difficult to do in this digital age when people are constantly interacting with pixels. Nordan connects on a "face-to-face, one-on-one level" she said. "It takes a special person to do that."

Throughout the exhibit's run, visitors called to see whether Nordan would be there during their tour, Greathouse said. He'd often start speaking with a few folks, and 30 would be gathered around near the end of the tour — he was like a Pied Piper of doomed nautical missions.

Nordan laughs at his own commitment to character and getting things just right. But, he said, his mother, Christine, always told him: "If you start it, finish it and do it all the way."

And whether it is serving two decades in the Army, re-enacting Civil War battles or portraying a Titanic officer, he takes those words to heart.

It was Nordan's mother, born 12 days after the ship sank in April 1912, who sparked his interest in the doomed vessel.

When he was in elementary school, she gave him a book about the ship and told him to study and write about it. He did — and still does. That book, rediscovered in a home-office stacked with books, papers and bits of history, was used as he researched Wilde.

Nordan's wife, Laura, saw the call for volunteers last year. He was instantly interested. For 20 years he'd played John Hunt Morgan in re-enactments of Morgan's Raid, and also some Yankee characters. But his faux-military career was waning. Injured in a re-enactment, he no longer could ride a horse.

So he embraced the idea of creating a character for the Titanic exhibit. Even before he went to the first volunteer training, Nordan scoured the world, or at least the World Wide Web, for a costume.

After about a month, he found on eBay the navy-blue-it's-so-dark-it-looks-black coat made in 1909. The coat and pants are part of an official British naval uniform, which changed very little until the 1960s.

The uniform, found through an antique store in England, had been carefully stored and looked nearly new. Nordan was the sole bidder, getting it for $67. But shipping was about $200. Luckily, the uniform fit him without tailoring, he said.

Then, of course, he had to find the right shirts, ones true to the era when men wore rounded collars. Those were hard to come by, so he had three made by a tailor at a cost of several hundred dollars each.

Then there were two hats. He had to find the proper insignias for them. That all done, he had to find a Titanic character whose real story matched the status of a lieutenant reflected in the gold bands around the sleeves of the navy uniform. With a little research, Nordan found his man — Wilde.

"It was actually the perfect character," Nordan said.

"It seemed like it was meant to be," Greathouse said.

Nordan, who is from North Carolina and has lived in Cynthiana for 20 years, didn't try to adopt a British accent. And, he said, he doesn't resemble the real life Wilde. But he did absorb Titanic lore and shares it with exhibit patrons.

One of Nordan's favorite parts of the tour is explaining that the damage caused by the iceberg itself wasn't sufficient to sink the ship. Those gashes, he said, accounted for only about 12 square feet of space.

But, he said, calling it a little-known fact, the Titanic crew opened a door for the third-class passengers near the water line to allow them to swim to the life boats. That door became stuck open when water rushed in, he said, striking the fatal blow to the unsinkable ship.

Sometimes Titanic fanatics will argue the point with him, Nordan said, but mostly "their jaws just drop to the floor."

As much fun as he has had as Wilde, it has been a challenge. In all his years as a re-enactor, Nordan said, he rarely spoke to the crowd. And when he did, it was from yards away from atop of a horse.

During his first day as Wilde, he was so nervous and sweaty that his hat almost slipped off his head.

As the exhibit comes to an end — he'll be working this weekend from 2-6 p.m., Friday and Saturday and 5-8 p.m. Sunday — Nordan is hoping to find a way to carry on his reignited passion for the Titanic, thinking of ways he can continue the character.

He knows from experience that being someone else for a while can have other rewards.

Nordan met his wife when he and some buddies were supposed to show up as Confederate soldiers at a fundraiser in Paris. Nordan and one friend showed up, and the buddy soon left, so Nordan was the only man in uniform. The only woman in period garb was Laura. They toured the party in character, she acting as the gracious hostess and introducing her new gentleman friend as Captain Morgan.

Nordan, dressed as John Hunt Morgan, let it slide for a while until he pointed to the bars on this lapel and said "Hey, honey, I'm a general."

To which she replied, "I must have been thinking of the rum."

They were married a year later.