By Dave Bontempo
The century mark denotes athletic excellence. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, a baseball team’s 100-win season, a batter’s 100-RBI campaign or a hockey player’s 100-point season fit into this category.
Beach patrols have their version, too. Stone Harbor’s celebrates its magical 100th year this summer, a milestone achievement of lifesaving, protection and growth that mirrored that of the borough. Although the lifeguard craft has evolved since Cleon Krause became the first watchdog for local beachgoers in 1912, its role hasn’t. Safety remains the name of the game. As beach tags replaced daily fees and as summer beach visitors dramatically increased, the guards became more seasoned to keep pace.
Measure 100 years times the number of rescues performed and lives saved. It spans 25 presidential terms, countless inventions, a handful of wars involving the United States, man reaching the moon, the Internet debut and the dot-com bubble.
For guards, the period produced a parallel journey of lifelong friendships.
No wonder Stone Harbor scheduled a huge alumni reunion celebration Aug. 9-11. A golf outing is planned for the first day, and the next evening will feature a softball game and a postgame gathering with pizza and beer. The finale calls for an evening roll call, ocean races and an evening banquet at the Women’s Civic Club. Former lieutenant Charles Boylan (email@example.com) is the event’s chief organizer, working with former captains Sam Wierman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and current head Sandy Bosacco
(email@example.com). (details below)
“It’s very impressive to be around 100 years, and an anniversary like this is something that people are not generally aware of,” says Bosacco, who has headed Stone Harbor’s patrol for 15 years. “Beach patrols in this area are among the oldest in the world. Atlantic City is the oldest, Ocean City is not far behind and Cape May celebrated its 100th last year. You are talking a lot of tradition here. These are excellent organizations.”
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the guards provide instantaneous response to public-safety threats, which have varied sources. Changing currents, swift-moving undertows and one person’s momentary attention lapse can create danger. Some people can’t swim, some panic, others get carried too deep. Some swallow water and become temporarily dysfunctional.
That’s when the stereotype of a lifeguard job ends: the great hours, the outside summer work, the free evenings. During these moments, the lifeguards must react in a heartbeat.
“People have a preconceived idea about what a lifeguard does,” Bosacco says. “They don’t always realize that for the guards, everything is safety first. Yes, the races are a lot of fun and they motivate everybody to be better, but it’s really about being able to respond immediately to trouble. You want to keep people in front of you in your protected area. If you signal them to move in or over and there is no response, either that person is not listening or can’t hear you. Either way, it’s something that has to be addressed, sooner rather than later.
“A lot of the guards don’t even give themselves credit for going in and pulling a kid out of the water, when the parents weren’t looking. It might be a year later when they think back and realize what they did. In that respect, lifeguarding hasn’t changed in 100 years. It’s about being fit, being alert and not hesitating.”
The patrols predate casinos and remain one of the few businesses not adversely affected by them. Some of their eras can be measured by drastic events, like the March 1962 storm that devastated the island. Dr. Terrence Malloy, both a lifeguard and a captain here, won’t forget it. He was a summer captain here and working in Philadelphia that March when the urgent call came from the borough. The headquarters? Well, it was sinking into the ocean.
Malloy drove down from Philadelphia and began a unique exercise with the police department.
“The building was tilting down at 30 degrees and all of our equipment was in there,” Malloy recalls. “Uniforms, oxygen equipment, radios, walkie-talkies, you name it. It had to be worth maybe $50,000 back then; the borough was really going to take a hit on that if it was lost. But fortunately we set something up where I slid down a rope into the building and three police officers would then pull me up and out of there. It took a number of trips, but we did manage to save everything.”
Malloy enjoys a decorated life journey. He was a lacrosse All-American at Yale, served in the 82nd Airborne Division in Vietnam and attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Now 76 going on 50, he is the chief of urology at Pennsylvania Hospital.
Malloy is credited with bringing Stone Harbor into the modern era, along with Captain George Douglas, in the 1950s. Malloy launched an innovative cover system.
“Back in that time, we only had the stands on 83rd, 87th, 94th, 100th and 108th Streets,” he says. “If you had to go out on your own, the next guards were so far away they never realized you were out there.
“On one occasion, I went after a woman and a child in the water, they ended up being three-eighths of a mile out. I was on 87th and nobody on 83rd or 94th could see what was going on. It all worked out fine, but it showed how much you were on your own.
“We ended up putting in more stands between the beaches. The borough was great about that; they supported us and also gave us money to pay salaries so that we got a more mature workforce looking after the people. We got college-age instead of high-school kids and we came up with a cover system, which is still in effect.
“After we put in more stands, all the guards could see each other on the adjacent stand. We also put in a cover system, so that if two guards leave a station, other people come down.”
Reunions are held every five years.
“Oh yeah, we’ll tell our stories and the girls will get prettier, etc.” says Charles Boylan, the former SHBP lieutenant and a Vietnam veteran who organized the last five reunions and claims this will be his last. “But this one will be real special. We have guys coming in from the West Coast and there is also something important about the guys from the ’60s, I think. For the guys in my era and a little older, it may be the last time we are all together. We were part of a time that was difficult for all of us.
“These guys are all close to me. From the beach patrol, there are 11 guys whose weddings I have been in.”
The Boylan family has long been active in the patrol. The list includes Charles’ brother Joe, who recently retired as the athletic director at Loyola University in Baltimore, which recently won the NCAA men’s lacrosse championship. Charles’ son Todd joined both of them on the patrol for several years.
Sam Wierman served on the Stone Harbor patrol for a number of years and captained it from 1978-81. His brother Tim served as captain a few years later. Wierman’s son Sam later became involved in the Avalon patrol. Wierman mirrored Boylan’s sentiment about the friendships gained on the lifeguard circuit.
“It was a real unique situation, hard to duplicate now,” says Wierman, who became a town fixture by launching the Ide Insurance Agency (he insures many of the guards) and serving as president of the town’s volunteer fire department for 20 years. “The camaraderie was unbelievable. I don’t hang with my high-school or my college buddies now. I hang out with the former guards, they are my best friends.”
Besides the cover system, Wierman says the transition from diamond- to torpedo-shaped rescue cans was a significant innovation. It was brought in during the 1980s. The new equipment was lighter and helped guards get to people more quickly.
Patrols, like the Army, have a reference point based on their executives. The leaders form the policy, inspire the troops and are most identified with the group accomplishments. Bosacco issues a word of caution in that respect.
“A century of service needs to emphasize the guards on the beach, not just the brass,” he says. “There have been several hundred, if not over a thousand, lifeguards over generations that have worked on the patrol since 1912. They are the ones that sit up on those blazing hot days, and venture into the frigid Atlantic. I’m talking to you right now and these guys are out there right now, in the rain, in the water. They have awesome dedication.
“There are also many guards who have and still do serve in our armed forces. Currently, one is a Coast Guard rescue swimmer and another is in Afghanistan in an artillery unit.”
Dave Bontempo, an award-winning writer and broadcaster, calls boxing matches all over the world for HBO. He covered the lifeguard racing circuit while at the Press of Atlantic City and for Global Gaming business magazine.