Sunday, January 6, 2019

Lifeguards on Sam Leone's four-mile stretch of Chicago's Touhy Beach made over 10,000 rescues during his 40-year career.

In 1925 a young lifeguard at Clarendon Beach—then the crown jewel of Chicago's beaches—impressed his bosses with his watchful eyes and dramatic rescues, soon earning a promotion to beach director. There was a catch: Instead of returning to Clarendon, the lifeguard would be transferred to Rogers Park Beach, a scraggly, broken-up four-mile stretch centered at Touhy Avenue, with a loosely organized lifeguard crew and a spotty safety record.

Sam Leone
"The Tyrant of Touhy Beach."
The lifeguard, 25-year-old Sam Leone, made the most of his opportunity. During the next 40 years, until he died in 1965, he improved lifesaving methods; whipped his 75-man lifeguard crew into a rugged, alert and well-trained unit. He developed a corps of "junior guards" into one of the city's biggest and best recreational programs and racked up one of the best safety records at any beach, anywhere. Along the way, Leone took on the role of second father to thousands of Rogers Park youngsters and earned the reputation as Chicago's greatest lifeguard.

"When Sam came around, it was like God walking into the place," says Joe Pecoraro, the Chicago Park District's recently retired superintendent of beaches and pools, who, as a young lifeguard, first knew Leone in the 1950s. "Sam was one of the best beach people in the world."

Hundreds of former lifeguards and junior guards gathered on the 100th anniversary of Leone's birth in 1900 to honor his life, work, and reputation. Appropriately, the gathering took place at his old headquarters at Touhy Avenue and the lake. The beach was renamed "Leone Beach" in Sam Leone's honor.

In the summer of 1925, the new director of Rogers Park Beach decided that some changes were needed in the name of safety. Leone quickly became one of the most ardent and influential backers of defensive lifeguarding. "It used to be that our job was to go down after the bodies," he once said. "Now we practice what we call preventive work."
Sam Leone and his boys are in a longboat. The early 1930s.
Leone's rules were simple: Lifeguards arrived on time and stayed until their shifts were over. They didn't leave their posts unless they were relieved. If one swimmer entered the lake, the lifeguard launched his rowboat and watched from a mobile position in the water. Guards could never talk to girls. They paid constant attention to everyone on their beaches, especially the youngest children and the piers, drop-offs, and other dangerous spots. "I'm a real Simon Legree in training them," Leone told the Chicago Tribune in 1943, "but lifeguarding is a tough job, and it's a job that has to be done right."
The hot-tempered Leone demanded excellence from his guards, and he got it. Although he stood only 5'8", Leone, a fleet boxing champion during World War I, could beat the stuffing out of men 50 pounds heavier and 20 years younger. When a lifeguard got out of line, Leone would invite him into the beach's little gym for a "boxing lesson." The threat alone was usually enough to keep his troops in line, but 1930s junior guard Scotty MacLagan witnessed at least one unhappy recipient of Leone's discipline. "It took me a long time to get to like Sam after I saw that," MacLagan says.

In 1940, Leone fired two guards for a drowning that happened on their beach at 4 am, long before they were on duty. After they pleaded their case, Leone relented and rehired them.

"But that's a little scary for a kid just out of high school to get fired for something that happened when I wasn't even there," says one of the guards, George Doscher, a retiree living in Lombard.

"Sam Leone was the Vince Lombardi of lifeguarding," says 1940s junior guard and 1950s lifeguard Ed Kahn, a retired chemical company executive living in Burr Ridge. "There was no nonsense, and there was no arguing. Just his look was enough to make grown men wilt."

Leone's leadership by intimidation wouldn't fly today, but no one could argue with his results. During his 40-year tenure, only seven drownings occurred on his four-mile stretch of beach, while his guards made more than 10,000 rescues, a safety record believed to be unmatched anywhere.

Leone's lifeguards were the first in Chicago to use two-way radios for emergency communication, a portable resuscitator for rescue breathing, a diving helmet and early versions of scuba. Leone's favorite innovation, however, was using a motorboat.

His pride and joy were the 'Alert,' a 22-footer he salvaged and rebuilt in 1930. The Alert was known as the fastest boat on the lakefront, hitting a top speed of over 50 mph. Just as important, Leone had designed it to take a pounding from the waves.

In 1956, a faster boat came along: the Prowler, a 28-footer out of Wilmette. The Prowler was useless in the waves, but it could beat the Alert head-on in calm water. "Sam did not take this lying down," remembers then-lifeguard Jim Miller, now chairman of Murphy & Miller, a Chicago-based air-conditioning distributor. Leone took the Alert back into the beach's workshop, acquired a more powerful engine and modified the body to better handle the extra speed. "Three weeks later, the boat's back on the water," Miller recalls. "It was once again the fastest thing on Lake Michigan."

Leone constantly hammered the need to be watchful into his lifeguards and took that lesson seriously. By 1950, the Tribune estimated, Leone had personally saved more than 500 people. But his most-publicized rescue—though he would have preferred less publicity on this one
took place on January 24, 1940. A neighbor phoned the beach to report a man clinging to an ice floe, and Leone launched a rowboat to investigate. He returned several minutes later with the victim, a very cold and wet Doberman pinscher, who gave Leone's face a big, slobbery lick just as they reached shore, to the delight of the reporters who had gathered. "That made the papers in Europe and all over the United States," remembers Leone's daughter, Carla Billings, who now lives in San Diego. "That's where Sam got internationally famous."

When Leone arrived at Touhy Beach in 1925, he inherited a loosely organized group of about 20 kids between ages 6 and 16 called "junior guards." These young people helped watch the beach during the pre-season and on hot, busy weekends. In exchange, the junior guards got T-shirts and the right to play with rowboats and other equipment as they prepared to become lifeguards.
Leone and his longtime assistant, Fran Conway, soon came up with more extensive plans for the junior guards. They kept the juniors on beach patrol part of the time. They also set up a wide range of activities: swimming and rowing lessons, softball and football games, lifesaving and artificial respiration classes, picnics on the beach, rides in the Alert and many others.

The boys (the program was all-male until 1970) couldn't sign up fast enough. In 1926, Leone's second year, Leone had 40 junior guards; in 1929, he had 64; in 1938, he had 125. By the 1950s, the number usually topped 300.
Through the years, Leone and his program won over the hearts of the beach's neighbors. By 1948, the Rogers Park News declared, "Almost every youngster in the neighborhood knows the Rogers Park Beach director as a second father."

Dozens of "Sam's boys," now in their 50s and 60s, still feel that way. "You always wanted to please him," remembers 1940s junior guard Dick Shiman, a longtime teacher and swimming coach at Loyola Academy in Wilmette. "If you were at the chin-up bar and Sam happened to walk by, you'd want him to see that you could do 10 pull-ups. Almost as if he were your dad
you'd say, `Hey, Sam, watch me.'"

On June 26, 1954, Leone and his guards made one of their greatest rescues, saving dozens of lives without even getting wet.

Around 9:30 on that Saturday morning, Leone surveyed the beach. It was shaping up to be a sunny, hot day
a significant improvement from the violent thunderstorm that had passed a couple of hours earlier. Despite the peaceful scene, he quickly realized something was wrong: The sand stretched 50 to 100 feet farther than the regular water line, and watermarks on the piers showed the lake level had dropped six feet or more.

Leone and his lifeguards cleared about 150 swimmers and sunbathers off the beach within minutes. Then the lake came rushing back in an eight-foot wave, covering the athletic fields at neighboring Loyola Park and sucking two 500-pound lifeguard towers into the water like matchsticks. By recognizing the phenomenon known as a seiche, Leone and his crew may have saved dozens of lives.

The "Great Seiche of 1954" killed eight people at Montrose and North Avenue Beaches. Soon after it hit, Leone and several guards headed down to Montrose in the Alert to dive for bodies. They retrieved several victims in that first practical use of scuba for search and recovery in the Chicago area.

As Leone aged, he showed no signs of decline except for his hearing. By 1950 he was about three-quarters deaf from years of lake swimming and working with noisy motors.

Leone learned to read lips fairly well, but phones presented a problem. He rigged up a second extension on the beach phone, on which a co-worker could listen. "Every word that the caller said, I would repeat; Sam would read my lips, and he would answer on the other phone," beach custodian Tony Rizzo remembers. "He fooled many people into thinking he got his hearing back."

But he didn't fool everyone. Lifeguard Allen Hyman, now a Miami-based risk management director, remembers fielding a phone call from Mayor Richard J. Daley in the early 1960s. "The mayor called and said, `As long as I am mayor, you'll never have to worry about losing your job,' " Hyman recalls. "Sam said, `Thanks, I appreciate that.' Then the mayor said, `How the hell are you hearing me? You're deaf!' and Sam had to give it away."

Leone planned to retire from the beaches at age 65, after the summer of 1965. But his doctor found lung cancer that year while treating a fractured rib. Leone steadily declined over the summer and died on October 8, 1965. The following year, Touhy Beach was rededicated as Sam J. Leone Park and Beach
the only Chicago park named for a lifeguard.
1966 Dedication 
The more fitting tribute, however, has been the continued success of the Leone Beach junior guard program. With more than 300 kidsboth boys and girlsthe program continues to thrive, with the same activities that Leone put in place 94 years ago.
For many years, the Leone Beach junior lifeguard program was the only one of its kind in the country. Now, almost every major beach in the country has some form of a junior lifeguard program. Meanwhile, junior lifeguarding spread south along Chicago's lakefront in the 1970s, aided by the Park District's Pecoraro. "We saw what Sam was doing and went from there," he says. Today, all of Chicago's beaches have junior lifeguards, though the Leone program remains the biggest.

The program's philosophy has mostly stayed the same since Leone's day. "We try to make the kids see a part of life they otherwise might not become acquainted with," Leone told the Tribune in 1964. "The leadership they show is very gratifying. I teach them, and they come back and do a better job running activities than I could."

You see, regular kids start thinking of themselves as something special that can really change their lives.

Chicago Tribune Archives
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. I grew up at Leone Beach, calling it home to summer camp for countless years. Rode my bike every summer morning 29 blocks east down Touhy Avenue, where I lived. Bob Diamond was the head of the beach back then, and he used to say every year at the big end of camp show, “if you try hard, you can still smell Sam Leone’s cigar in the air”, or something like that. We had to do a 220 yard swim, out to the buoy and back in order to be in the ‘220 Club’, which was a prestige from what I can recall. Great times at Leone Beach. Thanks for bringing back my childhood memories!! ❤️❤️

  2. All true; thats's my great uncle Sam, brother of my grandfather. He was quite a taskmaster as i remember when i was did what he said; even as an uncle horsin around there. i remember visiting the beach in Rogers park when i was really young and going on a motorboat ride. Better yet is the story my grandma told about my grandfather Joe Leone and Sam on their regular swimming adventures. they used to dive into the lake from the end of Navy Pier and swim to the jetty at the North Ave Beach wearing white swim caps so that my grandma could follow on the beach walk and spot them with binoculars. I also remember the day that the beach / park was dedicated by Mayor Daley, still have the original program from that day with autograph and good words of Richard J. Daley inscribed to my grandma, Margaret Leone.

  3. The summer program at Sam Leone Beach was truly a one of a kind of experience while growing up in Rogers Park. I started my tenure in the summer of 1960 as a 5 year old "Atom" and actively participated through my Lifeguarding years until 1978. I remember first hand experience seeing Sam in action. I was about 7 years old, just completed my swim lesson against the Beach 1 wooden jetty at the south end of Touhy beach. The jetty had numerous bars attached to the wooden supports that we used to steady ourselves learning to properly kick - scissors kicking for crawl, frog kicks for breast stroke and side kicking for rescue towing. While toweling off to get to the next event, I see Sam at the office steps suddenly jump down the steps and dash across the field, past me and dozens of other junior guards, jump into the lake near the jetty and pull out a youth that had gone under near the kicking bars. Nobody on the beach recognized the potential drowning due to all the activity, except Sam from over 50 yards away! Sam dragged him out of the water, checked airways and performed the "back-pressure/arm lift" maneuver and revived the boy in short order. By then Sam was surrounded by all the other guards up near the office as well as all the junior guards on the seawall. Sam and the boy, once revived, walked back up to the office for further observation, and was back the next day, good as new. Sam lived for the beach. His safety record and ability to teach by example and detailed explanation kept him always on "Alert". A fantastic role model to grow up with!

  4. I don't where to start Touhy Beach was a big part of my childhood as well as it was for all the kids in our neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods, it was a common thread that sowed us all together, a place we would meet kids that we would later attend high school with. Truly a place to learn values as well as swimming, rowing, canoeing and even Sailing and scuba for the 220 club members(which was buoy to buoy and back again not shore to buoy)in the afternoon. I went through atom, midget, and leader stages of the program, and logged some of my most impact full memories of my lifetime. The McDonald brothers (Brian and Bunny) ran the program those day under the ever present watchful eyes of Sam Leone, which I remember just as the article described right down to his uncanny ability to read lips even from a distance.I was at the dedication, I was 10 then and distinctly remember Major Richard J. Daley patting me on the head as he passed. I remember the t-shirts with the life preserver logo on the front, making fun of the Loyola fieldhouse summer camp kids who wore those bright yellow or blue,orange or green matching shirts and caps, Nicks stand where you could always afford popcorn, or a tamale or bazooka gum, chin-up bar with the daily regiment to log in your reps for the season long the competitions over the two season summer which feature baseball in the first and football in the second half of the summer. I remember the number of sets of brothers, I attend along with Kevin and Timmy mostly you went by last name. The crew boat, the swim show, and the greatest ever scavenger hunt. ...just a few memories, Thank you for unlocking them, Arthur Michael Collins

  5. I was a lifeguard there in the 60's and met my wife of 50 years there! Many happy memories to recall. The Alert motor boat was really something and I used to watch it go by from the perch I was standing on!


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