Leroy Colombo, Galveston’s best-known lifeguard
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.