The man who would become the 40th President of the United States was 15 years old when he became a lifeguard at Lowell Park in Dixon, Illinois. In a foreshadowing of the accomplishments he would achieve during the rest of his life, Ronald Reagan gained a reputation as an extraordinary lifeguard. During his seven summers in this position, he saved 77 people from drowning in the waters of the Rock River. When he went on to an extraordinary career that would take him through Hollywood’s silver screens, television stardom, and the governorship of California, and, ultimately, the presidency, most assumed he left his lifeguard days behind him. As Reagan was so fond of doing, however, he surprised everyone by showing that he never abandoned his roots. In the process, he added a 78th person to his list of rescued drowners.
His days as a lifeguard on the Rock River were happy ones. The intensely-shy young man found new self-confidence in his role as guardian of Lowell Park. He not only excelled in rescuing swimmers who found themselves in peril, but he learned valuable lessons about leadership.
Years later, Reagan recalled the challenge in getting swimmers out of the water at the end of his shift. When they wouldn’t listen to his commands to exit the river, he settled on a different tactic. The Gipper would toss a few pebbles in the water and yell, “River rat!” He would then sit back and watch the frantic rush of swimmers as they surged toward dry land, only too eager to avoid entanglement with Dixon’s water rodents.
He also learned the importance of accommodating the requests of his constituents. Although his job description only called for him to keep people from drowning, when an elderly swimmer approached Reagan with a problem, he was quick to help out. The swimmer said, “Will you please dive in? I’ve lost my false teeth.” Reagan dove in several times and finally located the sunken choppers. The grateful man gave the future president $10 for his efforts. Reagan later recalled, “That was the first time I was ever paid for doing anything.”
As his seventh summer as a lifeguard came to an end, he saved his 77th person from the Rock River and put a final notch in the wooden log he used to record the saves. He packed up his towel and left his lifeguard post for the final time. The lifeguard in him never went away, however.
Nearly 40 years later, on a sunny day in June 1969, Reagan was once again next to water, but he wasn’t wearing a swimsuit. He was dressed in suit and tie — attire appropriate for his job as governor of California.
The governor was surrounded by guests at the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. Off to the side, unobserved and forgotten, seven-year-old Alicia Berry was passing the time in the nearby swimming pool. Alicia couldn’t swim, but she was holding on to the edge of the pool, successfully keeping her head above water. When a rubber raft drifted by, she realized that if she could grab it, she could join the other kids in the middle of the pool. Just as she pushed off to seize the raft, another child pulled it away. Without a chance to cry out, Alicia sank to the bottom and was in immediate danger.
Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, Jr., recalled the event. “My father was standing nearby, chatting with some guests. In retrospect, I’m sure he had positioned himself at exactly that spot so he could keep watch over the pool. While my father hadn’t seen the actual mishap with the raft, he had been periodically scanning the pool, taking note of the weaker swimmers. He would have noticed Alicia. When she went under, a clock began running in his head. He probably gave her about 10 seconds to surface before politely excusing himself from his conversation and diving in.”
The fully-clothed and very soggy governor scooped Alicia out of the water and set her safely on dry land. Characteristically modest, Reagan brushed off the praise of onlookers, telling them that anyone could have done it.
It’s true that anyone could have, but only one person did. That’s how the Gipper saved his 78th drowning victim.