Lifeguards at Ardmore Beach

Vol. XI No. 3 - SUMMER/FALL 2000

By: Kathy Gemperle

The reminiscences of the team that worked there in the 1960s “Without the lake, this would be like Kansas City. We’d be nowhere without that water”. This comment from the head of the life guard team that patrolled and managed the beaches of Edgewater in the 1960’s says a lot about his feelings for his career along Chicago’s lake shore. His name is Becker and he’s the leader of a team of young men who served under him from 1963 to the early 1970’s at Ardmore Beach. But the word is that Becker was there, at Ardmore, first, in 1949. Before that God was the beach manager.

The lifeguards and Becker gathered at Leone Beach on Saturday, August 12, 2000 to celebrate and reminisce about the past. The reunion was a gathering of the more than 32 men who once watched over the people of Edgewater at their neighborhood beaches. In those days Becker, the leader and coach, required training for these young men which included rowing together in a boat they called the “whale boat” - a scene right out of Ben Hur. He would also send out individuals to row from Ardmore to Touhy and then run back to Ardmore. It was all part of the training. It must have been tempting to bring a token and take the CTA back to Ardmore.

The training was competitive and Becker fostered that competition. Another challenge was to dive off the Hollywood pier and swim back to shore, then take a rowboat out around the buoy and back, clocking the time. These times were posted on the perch so you could see what time you had to beat. The perch is sometimes called the lifeguard stand; it provides an overview of the beach and the people in the water.

This competition was part of the city wide competition between lifeguard teams. The Ardmore Beach team won a City Championship in rowing with Becker coaching and in swimming with Fran Cook’s coaching. They knew they were the “best” that year. Apparently, the standard for the quintessential lifeguard team was set at North Avenue Beach and they were the team to beat. This competition and teamwork is important for lifeguard training. The desire to be the best, benefits the public and public safety. As Becker put it, “We were there at the pleasure of the people. They were there to have a good time and we were there to help them enjoy themselves, provide a safe place.”

And so they had discipline and rules, Becker’s rules. Prevention of drowning was paramount. No one was allowed to go out in the water deeper than their chest. That way they couldn’t get in trouble because they could touch the bottom.

Another rule was the requirement that the lifeguards pick up the broken glass. This was important to save everyone’s feet. Becker was strict in the best sense of the word. No lifeguards were allowed to take two hour lunches. Part of the work ethic that Becker fostered included being on the job and responsible.

But still, the memory of those days at the Edgewater beaches includes memories of their favorite eating places. Barry Marem, one of the organizers of the event mentioned Standees, the Thorndale Deli, Moody” s Pub and a special treat, Ashkanaz , a Jewish deli on Morse. This was sort of a cross cultural experience. These young men who were lifeguards together were from what was then a variety of backgrounds, Christian and Jewish, public schools like Senn and Sullivan and Catholic schools like Loyola. No, there were no women at that time. Just as Edgewater was becoming more diverse, these young men were learning to respect each other and the diverse public they served.

And serve the public they did, covering Hollywood/Ardmore, Thorndale, Granville and Devon beaches. Reinhardt outlined the system this way. “There were three shifts, 9-6, 10-7, 1-9. The first shift carried the boats out and the last shift brought them back in. You just checked in at Ardmore and got your assignment The beach management was done from two trailers, one for the guards and one for the nurse.”

How this worked in actual fact was remembered by Ron Schultz. “I was from Humbolt Park. This was my first job with the City at $1.93 per hour. So I went to Ardmore for my assignment. They sent me to Devon. Now I didn’t know where that was, so they pointed me in the right direction and told me it was a street end beach. I walked past Thorndale and thought I’d found it when I reached Granville. But there was a lifeguard there. He sent me even further to this small beach, only about 75 feet of shoreline between metal pilings.” It was just south of Mundelein’s campus. This beach does not exist anymore.

The lifeguard’s recollections about Devon Beach point out some of the difficulties of the lifeguard’s job. Schultz remembers that he liked to keep an oar with him when he was alone at that beach. No, he never had any trouble but he was aware of some problems in the area and felt he was really alone there. There was a little phone there that connected to the Touhy main office, but that was far away. When someone buried a dead dog there, they broke the cable. It was in those days long ago before wireless phones.

The activity at Devon Beach was less typical that that at the larger beaches. Schultz remembered a caretaker at one of the nearby mansions who would come down to the beach and tell him the same story over and over. There was a woman, who was a regular, who came to the beach in her full length fur coat. She would drop it in the sand and go for a swim, then put it back on to return across Sheridan to her home. Barry Marem remembers talking with a priest at that beach, probably someone from Loyola.

Each of the beaches in Edgewater had a certain character, according to several of the former lifeguards.

Granville was just rocks and rats, at the street end. Thorndale was usually busy with mother’s and children and strollers. Ardmore, the big beach was a place for teens and college students. It was the combination of young people and elderly, people new to Chicago, from Tennessee and Kentucky and neighbors who could walk there.

Reinhardt Nichiseli had some vivid memories of the activities at Ardmore Beach. He told me this story of one beautiful sunny day. The year was 1967 or ‘68. “Some guy, who was inebriated walked out on the Hollywood pier and either fell in or jumped in. It may have been a suicide attempt. So I went after him.

Then a little while later another man jumped or fell in. Wolf went after him. There was a lot of commotion at the beach, two rescues in one day. Later that afternoon, a woman with 5 kids had a heart attack while she was sitting on the sand. We did everything we could but she died on the way to the hospital. The next day another strange event occurred, a boat brought in the body of a young woman who had committed suicide a month earlier, right in front of me.” Reinhardt didn’t say it but for a young man with a job dedicated to saving lives these events were memorable because they were a brush with death. Others were quick to point out that these were special occurrences and that lifeguards did not keep track or compete in record keeping of this type of incident. They were interested in the number of saves.

Several of the men remember other incidents at the beach. As Marem tells it, “In 1968 on a sunny day at Ardmore we were told that someone had called in a bomb threat, said that there was a bomb buried under the sand. We were told to clear the beach. It was 90+ degrees and we’re telling the crowd to leave the beach. Now the Edgewater crowd was not real anxious to leave the beach. We finally got it cleared and they came with mine sweepers. That was a memorable day! It was a day that they had to assert their authority over a large group of adults who weren’t very willing to cooperate.” This was just one of that type of experience that developed these guards into a team.

George Roth remembers his first day of life guarding. “I was in a boat, watching the crowd and there were these three guys who used to go way out to swim. They had a work out, during the spring, summer and fall. Now I didn’t know this at the time but others did. So I’m sitting out there in the boat and someone yells to me to look behind me (out into the lake). There they are, out past the end of the pier. And I can’t believe it, how did they get past me! It’s my first day. So I row out there and tell them they have to go back.” On days like these some of the guards wished for whistles, as a way to get everyone’s attention. But this was another one of Becker’s rules, no whistles. You had to learn to whistle on your own. It took about a year, but you did learn.

Now Becker was adamant that the lifeguards be on their toes, and running all the time. On the perch you were standing, on trips back to the trailer, you were running. Needless to say the guards had a chance to see everyone at the beach. So they had a Miss Ardmore Beach contest, with individual nominations and an informal vote. It was a way to enjoy the beautiful people at the beach.

Some of the men were willing to reflect on the job they had done and what it meant to them. Keith Evans, one of the organizers of the get together said “It was different being at Ardmore, we had an educated beach. There were thirty-two guards between Ardmore and Devon. Everyone stayed a minimum of four years, some longer. Other beaches had high school kids. Because of Becker, we stayed. We had guys going to med school and law school who still came back to guard”.

Reinhardt said, “The job of a lifeguard was not one an eighteen year old could anticipate. Some of the activities could be boring and mundane. You could be sitting in a row boat, standing on the perch but you were always alert, you just had to pay attention, watch everything. But, we believed we were the best and that Ardmore was the best beach.” Becker, the leader and coach says that to this day, he can’t go to the beach to relax. “I go to the beach and I’m watching the water. I can’t sit down. I never stop watching the water, watching people in the water. I can’t relax”. That’s dedication and the Edgewater community is lucky to have had such a wonderful team of lifeguards. Thanks.