Not just fun in the sun: Rehoboth Beach lifeguards on a century of service – The Washington Post

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Ah, to be a lifeguard in Rehoboth Beach. What a dream job. Paid to sit in a bathing suit all day, work on a tan, be ogled by beachgoers and occasionally whistle at the dopes who think climbing on the slick jetties is a fine idea. What could be easier?

Except, of course, that’s only half the picture. And this weekend, as the Rehoboth Beach Patrol celebrated its 100th anniversary, generations of guards who descended on the town were eager to share stories about the other half: the riptide rescues, the punishing daily workouts, the long rainy days on duty, the lost kids (and lost parents), the jellyfish stings, the airborne beach umbrellas. Did we mention the jetty climbers?

If it were easy, anyone could do it. Instead, only a select few make it their summer calling. The patrol’s centennial reunion (technically, it’s Year 101, but the festivities were pushed back because of covid) was a time to reconnect with old friends, reminisce about glory days on the stand and wonder what ever happened to those six-pack abs of yore.

The anniversary was also a time to take in the changes the past century has brought to the job of the lifeguard and, notably, the makeup of the patrol itself. Rehoboth Beach, a town where President Biden has a summer home and that bills itself as the nation’s summer capital because of the many Washingtonians who vacation there, has changed a lot in 100 years, and the patrol has changed with it.

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Jeff Giles knows about the history of Rehoboth’s lifeguards. And he’s invested in their future. Giles, 59, lifeguarded in Rehoboth from 1981 to 1986 before pursuing a career in law enforcement. But after retiring, the pull of the beach was strong.

Last year, Giles took the top job as captain of the 65-member patrol that guards Rehoboth Beach’s two-mile shoreline and works to keep safe the thousands who visit it every day from May through September. The record on that front has been impressive: Since the patrol’s beginning in 1921 with just two lifeguards, there has been just one drowning in Rehoboth while guards were on duty.

Safety is his top priority, but Giles has also made a concerted effort to connect patrol alumni with current guards. He invites them in to talk about their career paths and how their guard experience influenced the choices they made.

For him, there’s a thread that connects the beach patrol members of different eras.

“The common denominator is still the same for lifeguards 50 years ago and the lifeguards right now,” he said. “You still have to have a human sitting on the stand paying attention — and, on the rough days, being ready to go. And it takes a certain mind-set to do that.”

For Giles, the best thing about Saturday night’s reunion was seeing the young guards interacting with the old ones. “They told me they realized this is bigger than just a job,” Giles said. “This is something that connects you for life.”

If some aspects of the job are the same, much has also changed. For decades, the patrol was all men. And almost exclusively White. Many Delaware beaches were segregated until the 196os, and Rehoboth was no exception. Now the squad is more diverse, and close to half of the guards are women.

Wellington “Buddy” Hicks Jr., a Rehoboth lifeguard from 1955 to 1962, was one of the first Black lifeguards on the force. Though he guarded what was then designated a beach for non-Whites, he and the White lifeguards regularly assisted one another on saves and beach patrol.

“To guard the beach and make sure swimmers were safe was a great experience for me,” said Hicks, 89. “And I made great friends with the other guards. We all got along and helped each other.”

Bill Collick, another African American lifeguard, joined the patrol in 1969 after the beaches had been desegregated. Collick, who would later go on to be the head football coach and athletic director at Delaware State University, said he never felt anything but welcomed as a member of Rehoboth’s beach patrol.

“When I look at the people that I met there and the structure and the camaraderie, it’s like we really had an esprit de corps there,” said Collick, 71. “You had the opportunity to be around people who were all doing what we wanted to do.”

Like many lifeguards of his era, Collick credits the leadership of Frank Coveleski, a successful high school football coach who took charge of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol in the early 1950s.

Coveleski’s son John, 70, who was a Rehoboth lifeguard throughout the 1970s, said his dad demanded excellence and attention to detail. And he sought out the best.

Many of the guards, John Coveleski said, went on to become accomplished leaders, doctors, educators, first responders, judges and entrepreneurs. And when they all get back together, “it’s like you just saw them yesterday. You pick up right where you left off.”

Herb Miller, 84, was one of the oldest lifeguards to return for the reunion. When he was on the Rehoboth Beach Patrol in the 1950s, Miller made $49.95 a month. He rented out a room for $7 a week and paid another $7 a week for meals. That included just one glass of milk per meal.

Miller followed strict rules as a guard. Never turn your back to the water. Don’t jump off the stand to talk to people on the beach. Blow your Acme Thunderer whistle to warn swimmers away from the dangerous jetties.

The job, Miller said, was to closely watch everything, keep swimmers where they should be and avoid having to go in the ocean.

“I tell young guards, a good lifeguard never gets wet,” Miller said. “If you’re managing your beach properly, you should never have to get wet.”

But there was one order Miller and the other guards didn’t exactly want to enforce. On Delaware beaches in the late ’50s, bathing suits were tame one-piece affairs. The exotic bikini was known only from movies and magazines. But one day, a French tourist showed up wearing a bikini and some complaints were registered.

At the morning briefing the next day, the guards were told that if the woman wore a bikini on their beach, they would have to ask her to cover up.

“Well none of the guards wanted to do that,” Miller remembered. “It was a delight to see her.”

Jerry Rapkin, who at 92 is the patrol’s oldest alumni and almost as old as the patrol itself, started as a junior lifeguard at Rehoboth during World War II, when Coast Guard troops would patrol the beach on horseback to watch for enemy submarines and German spies.

“It’s great to have somebody my age still involved,” said Rapkin, who after being a guard went on to graduate from the Naval Academy and serve 27 years in the Navy before retiring as a captain. He now lives in Annapolis with his wife and said the reunion “brings back good memories and is a chance to mingle with people I’ve known for a long time.”

For Debbie Marson, who grew up in Alexandria and went to Rehoboth every summer with her family, being a lifeguard was a dream job. She wrote five letters to the captain begging to be allowed on the patrol. He finally relented. But it was 1980. The squad had added its first female guard only the year before. Change was slow and not always friendly.

“The first day somebody said, ‘Stupid girl, who let them on the patrol?’ ” remembers Marson, who now lives in Falls Church. “It was not welcoming, but it changed shortly thereafter. For the most part, I think I was welcomed and included, and then once I was no longer a rookie, I could boss anybody around.”

Lauren DeAngelis, 58, now a nurse anesthetist in Northern Virginia, became a lifeguard the year after Marson. She, too, grew up dreaming about one day having that job. As a preteen, she would make lunch and bring it to the guards on duty. And she would occasionally sit on the stand and pretend to guard.

When she finally got the job for real, she was thrilled to be one of the first women.

“I didn’t feel like I was groundbreaking, but I was really proud,” DeAngelis said. “When I was on the stand, I took it very seriously.”

The legacy of those first female guards is now evident in a force that is almost half women.

Ana Villabona had just finished her junior year of high school in 2017 when she applied for the patrol. She almost didn’t make it. On her first day of training, she passed out. On her second day, she stopped altogether. An older guard sat her down: You have to decide, he told her, if this is something you really want to do. Do you have the drive?

“I remember telling my friend, ‘I’ve got to prove I’m not just the person that passed out and quit the next day,’ ” Villabona said. “’I’ve really got to get back out there.’ And so that first couple of days was definitely a changing point for me in my life.”

Now 22, Villabona is the patrol’s senior lieutenant and is in charge of the training program for rookie lifeguards. She graduated from West Virginia University in the spring with a degree in public health. She’s proud, she says, to be a Latina woman in one of the squad’s top positions. The women who came before her on the squad are always with her in spirit.

“I think about them all the time. I could not imagine coming in to work every day and really, you know, trying to have to prove that you deserved being there, that you earned your spot,” she said. “I think if they hadn’t joined the patrol at the time they did and, you know, put their foot down as much as they did, we definitely wouldn’t have the women numbers that we have now.”

Many former guards, men and women, say their jobs weren’t always taken seriously. “Baywatch” didn’t help. The hit television show about a California beach patrol glamorized guard life in a way that often felt remote to Rehoboth guards.

Mike Querey, 50, was a lifeguard in Rehoboth from 1990 to 1995, when “Baywatch” was in its prime, and remembers it caused a lot of people to think guards were frivolous. “We had to overcome that mental model of, ‘Oh yeah, you just run around and look pretty and stuff,’ ” he said. “We’re like, ‘No, we save people all the time.’ ”

The demands of the job, Querey said, were a lot harder than people thought. Training for the squad’s rookie test was like “military boot camp.” And like many former lifeguards, Querey says the job never leaves you. Decades later, it’s hard for him to go to the beach without staring out at the surf, wondering where the trouble might come from and warning people away from it.

On days when the Atlantic is a gently lapping lake, the job can be dull. But when the nasty waves roll in, crashing thunder on Rehoboth’s precipitous shoreline, every bit of that intense training comes into play. All of the guards remember their most demanding saves, battling the relentless churn of the surf to snag a struggling swimmer beyond the break and return them safely to the beach.

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It’s thrilling. And rewarding. And exhausting. But for tired lifeguards, there’s no time to rest.

Get back in the chair. Scan the water. Spot the lost kids. Put on more sunscreen. Whistle the dopes away from the jetty.

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