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Deaf Lifeguard Saved Almost 1000 From Drowning

Leroy Colombo turned deaf when he suffered spinal meningitis when he was seven years previous (1912). He grew up to be a remarkably good lifeguard. Being deaf may need disqualified him for lifeguarding underneath sure circumstances, however Leroy’s deafness appeared to make him even higher at his job.

When he was on the seashore of Galveston Island, his eyes scanned the water continuously. The sound of the surf, youngsters enjoying, or seagulls cawing did not distract him. Having grown up blocks from the ocean, he knew the tides and the currents so properly that he might sense any alarming disruption within the water. Merely put, he was top-of-the-line lifeguards ever.

For a few years he was listed in The Guinness Ebook of World Data for the document number of lives he saved. Galveston’s Chamber of Commerce documented it at 907; in all probability, there were even more.

To know, Leroy Colombo (1905-1974) and his noteworthy accomplishments, we have to take a look at his background, contemplate the waters of the barrier island of Galveston (27 miles south of Houston and an enormous vacationer vacation spot), and acknowledge that lifeguarding was in its infancy.

Leroy Colombo

Leroy’s mother and father emigrated from Italy to Galveston, a town that was then referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, because there were many jobs. Up till 1900, Galveston was the primary deepwater port in Texas, delivery out virtually as much cotton as New Orleans. It was an ideal place for immigrants. Many found jobs at the port, and others found work on the town to keep the port staff housed and fed. It was a real melting pot, and though it was situated in the Jim Crow South, townspeople of all backgrounds tended to get along.

Leroy was the fifth baby out of what can be a family of eight youngsters–three sons and 5 daughters. In 1912-13, an outbreak of spinal meningitis swept by means of Texas, and Leroy was amongst its victims. Antibiotics had not yet been discovered, so the only hope for a return to well being was giving a affected person rest and plenty of hydration.

Leroy’s Recovery

Leroy was among the fortunate who recovered, however he was initially paralyzed from the waist down, and the illness completely value him his hearing. In some patients, the paralysis can ease over time, and Leroy was helped by his two brothers who refused to surrender on him. They took him swimming every day, and  they inspired him to walk a few of the time by holding him upright between the two of them in order that he might attempt to use his legs. Within a yr, Leroy was walking once more.

A yr after Leroy’s sickness, his father died from a heart situation. The oldest son, Nick, wanted to go away faculty to help the household. The household confronted the added burden of Leroy who was not doing nicely in a classroom the place he could not hear. One among his uncles heard concerning the Texas Faculty for the Deaf (a public faculty established in Austin in 1856) and encouraged his sister to send Leroy there.

Faculty for the Deaf

This move altered Leroy’s life for the better. Along with gaining an schooling, he discovered signal language and found a group with whom he might speak. There was a creek close by, and when he was not in school, Leroy might be discovered swimming. He was only 12 when he rescued his first drowning victim.

Colombo Returns to Galveston

After virtually 6 years in Austin, Colombo returned to Galveston. He was thrilled to be again close to the water.

Colombo was a gifted athlete and very robust swimmer; he was among the early surfers in the Galveston waters; he swam in races of all lengths but excelled in deepwater swimming. Colombo additionally liked to perform. He might clown around and dive from high boards with one of the best of them.

But Galveston was a difficult space for all ranges of swimmers. On the Gulf aspect of the island the water is treacherous. There are sandbars and locations where the ocean flooring drops away unexpectedly. The riptides are a continuing concern, pulling underneath skilled and inexperienced swimmers alike.

The peril was increased as a result of within the early 1900s, few individuals discovered water security. The primary swimming packages within the U.S. started in 1912 (see Wilbert E. Longfellow), and the packages have been sluggish to unfold all through the country. Those that came to Galveston for vacation typically didn’t know the best way to swim, as a result of few cities and cities had public access to swimming pools.

Yet summers have been scorching, and there was no air con till the late 1920s-1930s. Many traveled to Galveston to benefit from the cooling ocean breezes, and of course, they went into the water.

Take unpredictable currents and blend in crowds of people that don’t know the right way to swim (or find out how to swim nicely), and Galveston had the makings of every day catastrophe.

Lifeguarding in the Early Days

Throughout the country, most lifeguards have been volunteers—self-appointed groups of males (and a only a few ladies)—who made it their job to patrol the waters. In Galveston, they created an official membership for lifeguards. The younger men who qualified for the Galveston Toboggan and Surf Membership have been the primary tier of lifeguards alongside the beachfront.

Leroy Colombo on beachOn the seashore

To grow to be a member, there was a stiff entrance examination: Swimmers needed to swim for 3 straight hours without floating or utilizing any type of outdoors help. Colombo, at age 18, handed on his first attempt in 1923.

Would Colombo have qualified if there had been an interview course of as nicely? In all probability not. Then—and now—deaf individuals face obstacles in getting hired for a lot of mainstream jobs.

Aince that time, researchers have discovered that Colombo might have been a greater lifeguard because he couldn’t hear. Almost all lifeguards see a problem earlier than they’re able to hear somebody crying for assist. The roar of the ocean or the shouts of youngsters typically block out different sounds. Colombo’s senses have been notably properly tuned for what wanted to be observed.

Galveston Lifeguards

Colombo’s further benefit was that he grew up close to the Galveston waters. He had intimate information of how the ocean might behave in all varieties of weather. When he was on the seashore, he was continuously scanning the waters on the lookout for abnormal movement of people. Drowning doesn’t all the time involve wild waving; typically a swimmer is worrisomely still. All those signs have been ones Colombo recognized as attainable requires help.

Galveston pierLifeguarding in the Galveston waters in that day was usually a three-step course of. The perfect first step was throwing a line to a sufferer. Second was swimming out with a float. The third step—and the one that Leroy primarily used–was a swimming rescue.

Swimming rescues are troublesome as the drowning sufferer might panic and make a too-tight maintain across the rescuer’s neck or thrash about so wildly that the rescuer can’t grab the individual to swim in. In that day, lifeguards have been encouraged to knock out a swimmer who was inhibiting the rescue. Colombo typically resorted to that.

Daring Rescues

Leroy ColomboColombo’s rescues typically made information—he rescued drivers from automobiles that went into the ocean; he typically needed to convey out multiple victims when well-intended relations entered the water considering they might save the struggling individual. Colombo typically needed to rescue the original victim as well as those who have been making an attempt to assist.

One summer time an enormous group of deaf individuals came down to go to Leroy. Six of the lads have been standing in what started out as calm waters. Then the undertow took all six off their ft. Colombo was left to convey them multi functional by one.

Throughout World Warfare II, the seashores have been overrun by soldiers on depart before delivery out, and the crowds have been overwhelming. On one single afternoon, he saved 19 individuals.

Certainly one of Colombo’s most dramatic rescues was when a tugboat hit a barge, and the barge burst into flames that shortly engulfed the tugboat. To rescue these on board, Colombo dove underneath the flames several occasions to save lots of the lads.

Colombo Continued to Compete

All through the 1920s and ‘30s, Colombo also performed and raced. His specialty was sea-water distance racing. (This is a sport that is no longer encouraged, as it’s seen as too dangerous.)

Along with a 5k race held at the opening of the Galveston seashore season annually, there have been also competitions to swim throughout the Gulf—a 15-mile journey that many who entered couldn’t end. One yr fourteen swimmers started the race. Leroy Colombo was the primary are available. Forty-five minutes later, his brother completed—all the other swimmers give up earlier than the top of the race.

Another yr, Colombo raced towards the guy who held the novice Athletic Union Nationwide Endurance title. In both 1924 and 1925, Colombo bested him—one yr he did so by a full 90 minutes.

Those that saw Leroy Colombo swim stated that his secret was an unwavering tempo. He just stored swimming.

Colombo remained lively in a number of sports activities teams made up of alumni from the Faculty for the Deaf. As part of the workforce, he traveled to Houston, San Antonio, Biloxi, and St. Louis for races and often gained. Galveston liked the publicity for the town. The Chamber of Commerce attempted to boost money to ship him to England to coach for the Olympics nevertheless it by no means came to cross.

Lifeguard Duties

In addition to saving lives, lifeguards tended to many other issues. They aided swimmers stung by jellyfish; they policed the seashore, cleaning up across the bathhouses; they usually scolded youngsters who didn’t clean up after themselves.

As a result of they have been volunteer staff until the mid-1940s, all of them did what they might to earn cash. Some cut up the small income from a concession renting umbrellas, chairs and floats. Most additionally took jobs at restaurants and casinos that might rent additional individuals for the night time shifts.

Galveston Modifications

Attracting tourists turned much more essential after Hurricane Isaac wiped out so much of the world in 1900. (Isaac holds the document as the deadliest natural disaster within the U.S. Between 6000-8000 individuals have been killed.)  Whereas Galveston was re-building, other corporations have been dredging out a deepwater port in Houston in order that the region can be less depending on the storm-prone Island.

Balinese RoomThe Balinese Room, Galveston

In response, Galveston worked arduous to earn their title as “the Riviera of the South.” Engineers really helpful building a 10-mile long, 17-foot high seawall to protect towards floods and hurricane storm surges. It nonetheless helps shield Galveston at present.

Professor Jean F. Andrews, who has written extensively about Colombo, together with her e-book, High Tides, Low Tides, The Story of Leroy Colombo, notes that each one Colombo’s rescues have been good for Galveston, and the newspaper was pleased to write down them up. Galveston had a vested interest in assuring future tourists that it was a protected place to return for a visit.

More Leisure Points of interest

When prohibition was enacted in 1920, Galveston’s geography meant that they might usher in liquor or retailer it offshore with very little hassle. The town turned Vegas before there was a Las Vegas. Main entertainers made some extent to seem in Galveston, and casinos, partying, and prostitution have been the order of the day. There was never a scarcity of liquor.

Like most lifeguards, Colombo beloved being part of the Galveston “scene.” He was a drinker, so he liked the night time life. As a robust well-built man, he was used as a bouncer at a number of the clubs, and nobody notably monitored whether or not he’d had a couple of beers.

Regulation Involves Galveston

Texas RangersAfter World Warfare II, the Texas legislature needed the town cleaned up. The casinos started cat-and-mouse games they played often with the an arm of the sheriff’s department, the Texas Rangers. The Balinese Room, one of many clubs where Colombo labored, was built on a pier. In the event you walked the length of the coated pier (about 200 ft), you’d come to the “members only” casino.

One summer time, the Texas Rangers arrived each night time for 64 nights operating hoping for a bust. They never achieved it.

Each night followed an analogous pattern. The Rangers entered the pier, and a sign from the business supervisor would go to the casino. Crap tables turned bridge tables and slot machines have been folded into the wall. If the house owners had time to spare, then they cued the band. As the Rangers entered, the bandleader would announce: “And Ladies and Gentlemen, we give you in person, the Texas Rangers.”

The Balinese Room finally closed in 1960.

Private Life

Leroy ColomboLeroy Colombo was fortunate to have six years within a group of deaf individuals. While he liked being on the seashore in Galveston, it was a lonely existence. Nobody in his household ever discovered to sign, and while some classmates got here down to go to him, there were many days when he might solely share easy lip-reading conversations with others.

And he never lost interest in looking for a solution to re-gain his listening to. During these years, drugs males circulated all through the U.S. promising cures for every part from arthritis and “dropsies” to deafness.

Leroy purchased into one fellow’s concept that Leroy might regain his listening to by way of a “plane cure.” He turned buddies with Army Airman Lt. G.H. McHenry, and McHenry took him up day by day for a time period.  They might fly as much as 11,000 ft and then McHenry would deliver the aircraft down shortly to 7000 ft. Colombo stated he heard a number of the sounds of the aircraft, and he desperately hoped it will restore extra of his listening to.

Deaf Fraternal Society Necessary

Medical insurance was nearly unimaginable for a deaf individual to acquire throughout these years. Most deaf individuals are just as wholesome as anybody else, but worry stored insurance corporations from writing policies for them.

Leroy Colombo Seawall marker close to Colombo’s childhood house

The Fraternal Society of the Deaf (FRAT) grew out of graduates from the Texas Faculty for the Deaf, and amongst their accomplishments was negotiating group medical insurance rates for its members.

As Colombo grew older, his well being worsened. He inherited his father’s heart situation, and he drank heavily, ultimately causing a bleeding ulcer.

When he didn’t really feel nicely, he couldn’t do the odd jobs that helped him help himself. He lastly needed to flip to his deaf pals for help in paying dues to the fraternal order in order that he might proceed to get the healthcare he needed.

Colombo’s Final Years

Colombo retired from his place as a lifeguard on the age of 62 because of his well being. He continued to swim a mile every day, winter and summer time, for the subsequent six years till he simply couldn’t do it anymore. After that he lived for less than another few weeks.

After Colombo’s demise, the Galveston Police Chief, D.Okay. Lack stated: “He was one of greatest lifeguards that ever lived. He saved more people that I ever heard of or knew. Colombo could sense anything going on in the water and see it before anyone else could. He’s a legend in the city of Galveston.” (Lack was quoted in The Deaf American, 1974.)

Leroy Colombo Honored in Many Ways

Leroy Colombo’s passing was noted within the Texas Legislature by a second of silence. Many towns in Texas flew flags at half mast.

Leroy ColomboOther honors followed. The 5K race held annually in Galveston is called the Leroy Colombo race. Fittingly, it is a fundraiser for the seashore patrol. Several markers in Galveston word the lifetime of Leroy Colombo. He would have notably liked the one that’s by the seawall that’s simply blocks from the home the place he grew up. That stretch of the seashore is also called Colombo’s View.

The Texas Faculty for the Deaf also honored him. In 2002, Colombo was inducted into the Texas Faculty for the Deaf Athletic Corridor of Fame. In 2006, the varsity named their Swim Middle after him.

Regardless of Colombo’s ups and downs, he lived as he needed where he needed. Considered one of his associates stated: “He couldn’t hear the roar of the surf, but he saw the sun and water, and he felt the sand between his toes every day.”

To read about one other deaf one that excelled in her profession, read Kitty O’Neil, Stuntwoman.

View sources »

“Leroy Colombo: The Deaf Lifeguard of Galveston Island Part I: The Early Years (1905-1943)” by Jean F. Andrews (2010), East Texas Historic Journal: Vol. 48: Concern 2, Article 9.

“Leroy Colombo: The Deaf Lifeguard of Galveston Island Part II: The Later Years (1943-1974)” by Jean F. Andrews (2011), East Texas Historic Journal: Vol. 49: Difficulty 1, Article 5.

“Hero of Galveston Island: The Legacy of Leroy Colombo,” by Jean F. Andrews, , September 13, 2012.

“Leroy Colombo, Galveston’s Best-Known Lifeguard,”, June 1, 2009.

“Leroy Colombo: Life Saver,”, December 1, 2009.

“Leroy Colombo,” by Sultana Anjum,, July 26, 2018.

“Living Loud: Leroy Colombo-First Deaf Lifeguard and Life-Saving Record Holder,”, December 29, 2018.

“Leroy Colombo: Champion Swimmer and Record-Breaking Lifeguard,” from the Workplace of the Governor, Texas, October 3, 2014.

“Leroy Colombo was a Lifeguard for Life,” by Peter Davis,, October 10, 2014.

“History of Lifeguards in the United States,”