A Long Beach Lifeguard Legend

June 25, 2018

It’s the summer of 1950 when Richard “Dick” Miller became a seasonal lifeguard, assigned duty at Colorado Lagoon. The beach is crowded, kids are playing, and happy families are basking in the sun. Lean, tan and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice, Miller watches the water attentively.

 

“The interesting thing is if you’re lifeguarding on the beach and if you have rip currents running or title action, you can see it,” Dick said. “In the lagoon, we had a drop-off that was hard to detect, and young children would get caught in there and, bingo, they were in trouble—you had to be really alert.”

 

Today, at 85 years old, Dick wears his Long Beach Lifeguard Alumni Association t-shirt proudly. In addition to lifeguarding the Colorado Lagoon back in the day, he also patrolled the peninsula and, in 1974, became lifeguard chief of Long Beach.

 

Dick peers out towards Marine Stadium from the Long Beach Lifeguard Museum—his gaze almost telling the story for him.

 

“I remember one rescue I made with my lifeguard buddy, John,” Dick recalled. “There was a guy going under [the drop-off] at the lagoon and he was flailing his arms—we went into the water and John and I got ahold of him, pulled him out, and when he came up, he said, ‘What about my girlfriend? She’s down there too! I was standing on her shoulders!’ So we dove and got her out. She was not a happy camper with her boyfriend. Often, the water brings out the romantic feeling, so they were hugging, stepped off the drop-off and he shoved her down to keep his head up,” he added with a rosy grin.

 

Dick tells many similar rescue stories—some harrowing and some funny, but all of them brought to life with every photograph and relic he points out at the lifeguard museum. He points to a picture of himself as a kid with his friends hanging out at Bay Shore in the 1940s.

 

“This is me when I was young. This is Pat McCormick, [who went on to become the Olympic diving champion,] and Tommy Lind—the father of Long Beach rowing legend Joan Van Blom.”

 

Bay Shore Avenue was a popular hangout for him and his friends when they were kids, as was, no surprise, Second Street.

 

“There used to be a drive-in soda fountain where Starbucks is now on 2nd Street,” Miller said. “It was called ‘The Tipi,’ because it looked like an Indian tipi. And where Sweet Jill's Bakery is now, there used to be a sandwich place called the Mountain View—we would get malts there. There was also a place where we could rent doodlebugs, these little motorized street scooters—we would terrorize 2nd Street!”

 

As a youth, Dick completed the “golden triangle” in Long Beach, attending Lowell Elementary, Rogers Middle School, and Wilson High School. There, Dick was the captain of the swim team and co-captain of the water polo team.

 

“We beat Poly in swim in 1951 and that’s when the long string of Moore Leagues began [for Wilson],” Dick said. “Pete Archer was our coach. The pool wasn’t built yet so we had to work out in the [Colorado] lagoon. And in October and November, it got pretty cold out there.”

 

The Colorado Lagoon became a home away from home for Dick when he became a seasonal lifeguard there in 1950. For Dick, lifeguarding was about continuing a historic legacy that had begun with his father, Vic, and his Uncle Roy “Dutch” Miller, of whom the original lifeguard headquarters, on Ocean Boulevard and Cherry Avenue, is named after. Dutch was the proverbial founding father of the city’s lifeguard service.

 

“He was tough,” Dick said of his Uncle Roy. “I remember one time, I walked into lifeguard headquarters––I was just a rookie at the time––and Dutch was at the desk. I said, ‘Hi Uncle Roy,’ and he said, ‘Don’t you ever call me that.’”

 

Dick says he still doesn’t know why Dutch said that in such a stern manner. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t want to show favoritism to a family member, and that’s probably why Dutch assigned his nephew lifeguarding at the lagoon.   

 

Dutch, alongside his brother Vic, began lifeguarding in 1918. Before that, the brothers had watched the so-called “beach tag men,” as they were known in the early 1900s, bicep-curl people out of troubled waters––there were no sophisticated rescue methods back then.  

 

Dick Miller knows the history of the Long Beach lifeguard well. He shows how the metal rescue “can” became the modern life-saving vessel known today––often referred to as a Burnside Buoy.

 

“The Torpedo Can was made by Wille’s Tin Shop, established in 1906 in Long Beach,” Miller said. “It's now made of lightweight plastic and is still brightly colored. We still call it a ‘rescue can.’”

 

The heavy, pointed Torpedo Can that you could stick in the sand would've been familiar to Uncle Roy and his brother Vic back in the day.

 

“There were five brothers in the family. My dad was the youngest and Dutch was the oldest,” Miller said. “They started going to the beach in 1906 recreationally.”  

 

1906 began a Golden Age of surf and swim in Long Beach––making the little seaside resort town the “Queen of the Beaches.” The Pacific Red Cars, which had been implemented in 1902, gave beachgoers easy access to Long Beach. Thousands of Los Angeles area residents flocked to Long Beach to escape the summer’s heat, which required the city to make drastic changes to its lifeguarding program.

 

Dutch Miller was appointed lifeguard captain in 1922, and Vic became his skipper and first lieutenant in the guards, garnering the name “Silver Fox,” a dynamic duo that would even put Batman and Robin to shame. They were “men’s men” –– tan, lean and broad shouldered –– and little did they know, they would command the beach for the next forty years.

 

During the Roaring ‘20s, Dutch and Vic constructed nine lifeguard towers and added new dories to the Lifeguard Service’s rescue navy. In 1924, the City of Long Beach campaigned into operation the first motor patrol boat used in ocean rescue. Skippered by the “Silver Fox,” the boat became a popular sight, as newspapers of the time heralded headlines like “dashing through the waves.”

 

Under Dutch and Vic’s leadership, Long Beach became the hallmark of bold innovation and new design for lifeguarding, setting the standard for all other lifeguard services. More innovations improved throughout the decades, including a state-of-the-art phone communication system with a switchboard, donated by Long Beach Poly High School.

 

By the time Dick became lifeguard chief in 1974, just a few years after Dutch and Vic retired from the Lifeguard Service, the world of lifeguarding had come a long way. Lifeguarding techniques and technology have become more complex and structured, even since Dick Miller’s time as lifeguard chief. But one thing, he says, remains the same.

 

“The most satisfying thing that Dutch told me was that when you went to work on the beach, you look over there and see that family––husband, wife, kids, grandparents––it’s your job to make sure they all go home together; it’s neat,” Miller said.


Visit the Long Beach Lifeguard Museum this summer at Marine Stadium, located at 5291 E. Paoli Way, Long Beach, CA 90803. Say hello to Dick Miller and his Lifeguard Hall-of-Fame friends who will be barbecuing and sharing lifeguard stories during Concerts in the Park season.  

 

 

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