Home > Deaf History > Leroy Colombo, Galveston’s best-known lifeguard

Leroy Colombo, Galveston’s best-known lifeguard

June 1, 2009

LeRoy Colombo (December 23, 1905—July 12, 1974) of Galveston, Texas, was a champion long-distance and endurance swimmer and lifeguard. He is credited with saving 907 lives, a feat formerly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Stories about his incredible feats in rescuing victims of disasters, both on sea and land, became part of local lore. Was Colombo treated like a hero? Hardly. A grateful dog owner gave him $25 for rescuing her poodle from drowning; an elderly woman gave him $30 for retrieving her false teeth from the surf. What about gratitude for rescuing humans? Well, a father gave him two cans of beer for rescuing his two daughters from drowning. After seeing Colombo rescue a newsboy, bystanders took up a collection, totaling $1.00. Nothing stopped him, though. After being forced to retire at age 62 because of a heart condition, he continued to swim every day, practically until the day of his death, always on the alert for anyone who needed rescuing—grateful or not.

There’s also the tale of a 10-mile race along the Mississippi River. Colombo was reported to have dislocated a shoulder at the 8-mile mark, and he had to finish the race with one arm. He didn’t win, but then again, neither did another competitor, Johnny Weismuller, a five-time Olympic medalist who went on to fame in the “Tarzan” movies. [Read the article about Museum to honor Galveston lifeguard]

Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who surfed with Colombo as a child living in Galveston during the 1930s, also will be honored at the museum as one of the state’s first surfers. Paskowitz went on to surf all over the world. He took second place in the 1941 Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships. He also earned a medical degree, established surf schools and wrote a book, among other accomplishments.

The spot is appropriate because Colombo patrolled beaches in the area while he was working as a lifeguard for the city of Galveston, said Donald Mize, who requested the street naming. [Read the article about Street renamed after legendary lifeguard]

The Rosenberg Library exhibited a championship trophy won by LeRoy Colombo in 1927.

The Noon Optimist Club and the city of Galveston erected a plaque
in Colombo’s honor not long after his death in 1974.

A timeline history of LeRoy Colombo:

-1912 At the age of seven, LeRoy Columbo suffered an attack of spinal meningitis which cost him his hearing and the use of both legs. He tried swimming (and his three brothers worked with him) and within a year he was able to walk again.

-He eventually became the first deaf lifeguard as well as earning the title “the World’s Greatest Lifeguard.” He saved 907 lives in a 40 year career, a record noted in the Guinness Book of World Records.

-In 1923 he became the first deaf person to join Galveston’s elite “Surf Toboggan Club.” He qualified by swimming continuously for three hours with no stops or floating. And in 1923 he became a lifeguard for the city of Galveston.

-He was among the first to ride surfboards at Galveston beaches.

-In 1927, Colombo completed a 15-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico in just 11-and-a-half hours.

-In 1928 he rescued two crewmen after a tugboat exploded in flames (this required swimming beneath burning oil).

-LeRoy made his first rescue (of a drowning boy) at the age of 12.

-LeRoy almost drowned 16 times during rescues.

-He became a competitive swimmer at Texas School for the Deaf, setting multiple records for speed and distance.

-He retired at 62 and continued to swim in the ocean daily until he died on July 12, 1974. Flags in Texas were flown at half staff upon his death and a plaque erected on the Galveston beach he patrolled for forty years.

-The Noon Optimist Club and the city of Galveston erected a plaque in Colombo’s honor not long after his death in 1974.

– In 2005, the legendary Galveston lifeguard will be the subject of a display in a surf museum to open in Corpus Christi.

-The beach patrol’s annual fund-raiser, a 5K run, bears Colombo’s name.

-In 2006, the Texas School for the Deaf unveiled a new swimming center, which was named for Colombo.

-In May 2008, the Rosenberg Library will exhibit a championship trophy won by LeRoy Colombo in 1927.

-The street will be referred to as Leroy Colombo’s View and 57th Street on signs.

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    Categories: Deaf History
    1. RLM
      June 1, 2009 at 11:24 am

      Fookembug,

      Splendid blog posting which would be very great online resource for deaf youngsters to be inspired about the underappreciated deaf hero, Leroy Columbo!

      I knew about this legendary deaf lifeguard, but never seen the picture of this very incredible handsome guy.

      Not really much about his martial status or personal background like the membership with any deaf clubs, etc.

      Or Leroy preferred to be the loner and focused on his lifeguard work?

      Great blog posting again!

      Robert L. Mason (RLM)

    2. A.J
      June 1, 2009 at 1:08 pm

      I did not know that he’s best lifeguard in the world. Wow, it sends me some geesebump when reading the story about him.

      How come there is no story or biography about him in wikipedia?

    3. Jack
      June 1, 2009 at 2:39 pm

      Fookembug,

      I am so fortunate to have met him, chatted with him and known him when I was a young boy as I grew up in Houston, TX, 50 miles west of Galveston. My deaf parents had known Mr. Columbo and always visited with him every time they saw him on the beach when they took us, 4 young deaf kids. My parents always wanted us to know Mr. Columbo as the man who saved many lives.

      I went to Galveston Beach many times in my youth years and remember seeing him patrolling the seawall, where there were several toliet houses on the wall before the city removed them after the Carla Hurricane in early 1960’s. He always saw that the houses were maintained and cleaned. He would curse anyone, who left the house mess such as broken beer bottle left on the floor. I remember seeing him chasing and catching a man, who throw a glasses beer bottle on the floor, out of one of the houses and cursed him that everyone could hear him. (Needless to say, he had a terrible temper and would lost his temper when he caught someone either trying to mess up or messing up the toliet houses as I have witnessed his temper myself.) His family ran raft, seat, and umbrella rental business on the west beach. He frequently took over and ran the business in absence of his brothers, who owned the business, along with his nephews of his brothers when they were out on business. Whenever he took over for his brothers, he would patrolled every inch of the beach, all the toliet houses and along the sea wall as if he owned them all.

      He always joked about his big beer belly and told us that he had 40 rust can of beer in his belly. I remember that he told me he had cancer somewhere in his stomach. (I don’t know what he died of.) He had a real nice tan as he was under the sun in most of the early spring, summer, and early Fall when he worked for his brothers and guarded the part of west beach. He seem to read lip fluently and could speak for himself as everyone seem to understand him. He had good sense of humor and always made everyone laugh everytime he talked with them. He was still as handsome as when he was young.

      He also proudly told us many stories about him saving many lives from drowning and how he came to their rescue and helped people with other incidents. He knew how to stop the pain from jellyfish stings by covering it with the sand and always stayed with the victims until they were ok because the stingy could be very painful that could make them cry and yell with pain. Sometimes he would call for medical assistance when he noticed that the stingy was severe.

      He seem to be well liked, and well known by all beach goers and sun worhsippers and patrons, and to get along very well with everyone. Unfortunately, he seem to be a loner as I had never seen him having people with him or socializing with them, but he was well respect among Galveston residents and business people.

      Every time I visit Galveston, I always stop by his plague and pay him respect. Galveston is different without him as I have never met another deaf man, who knows the city and beach as well as he did. The beach is his home away from home as he loved to be on the beach.

      Again, I am honor to have known him personally and been one of his friends. Even though I am in age of 60’s, I still remember him like yesterday.

      Thank you for allowing me share my memory with Mr. Columbo and please do share them with the deaf community.

      Jack Clifton

    4. June 5, 2009 at 4:01 am

      Fookembug,

      very good article, very well written. I enjoyed reading it. Also very interesting. Very nice illustrated too. Greetings, Martin Terryn, Belgium.

    5. jazmine
      September 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm

      LLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAAAMMMMMMMMMMMEEEEEEEEEEEE

    6. jazmine
      September 21, 2010 at 12:35 pm

      i was kidding it is very good how leroy made something of himself

    7. Stephanie
      November 29, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      Does anyone know if he signed?

    8. Jack Clifton
      November 29, 2012 at 11:56 pm

      Stephansie, Yes, Combo signed and did ASL fluently. I know him personally. See my comment below.

      Thanks,

      Jack

    9. Dan
      January 9, 2013 at 5:43 am

      I remember him as a teen when he used to come into my dad’s service station, the Hudson Oil Company service station at 66th and Broadway, in the early 70s and I remember him because he was deaf. He was a nice man and friends with my dad Joe Hixon.

    1. December 9, 2009 at 1:21 am
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