Former Barton Springs lifeguards recall life on the stand

Lifeguard job held mystique — and fringe benefits — in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s


It takes skill, sunscreen and a little attitude to work the lifeguard stand at Barton Springs Pool, that brisk, shimmering swimming hole that doubles as the soul of our city.

After we wrote about a day in the life of a guard at the pool, we heard from people who worked there as far back as the 1950s. We gathered them to take photos and hear some of their zinc-oxide-slathered tales.

They told us how they sneaked into the park after hours for off-the-books parties, shacked up together in cheap apartments on Riverside Drive and watched girls while they sat on the stand. Environmentalists might cringe at some of their memories, too, like cutting back aquatic plants growing on the bottom of the pool and pouring chlorine on the rocks in the shallow end to kill algae.

We learned that in the late 1950s, guards were issued a “guard” patch to sew onto their shorts and a single “guard” T-shirt to wear while on duty. Starting pay was 90 cents an hour, and guards carried a dime in their pocket to make emergency phone calls.

“If you were fortunate, you might have an umbrella on your guard stand. You furnished your own whistle, hat, towel, flip-flops and sunscreen,” says Jon Hilsabeck, who guarded from 1959 to 1962.

But Hilsabeck says he learned a lot from the job — leadership and management skills that guided him during a career as a hospital administrator and later an adjunct teacher at St. Edward’s University and Concordia University.

Early on, the pool hired only male lifeguards. That changed in 1979, when VelAnne Clifton became one of the first female guards at Barton Springs.

Guards got to know the regular swimmers, along with local celebrities like Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Gary P. Nunn and the Thunderbirds, who dropped in for a swim now and then.

“Oh, yeah, it was a blast,” Clifton says.

The close-knit pool staff drew together as the summer days ticked past, becoming a family. And one thing those family members agreed on?

It was the best job ever.

We asked some of the former guards to offer up favorite memories from life on the stand.

Charlie Kerr

65, retired from Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission

Guarded 1972-1974

“It was a celebrity job in those days. We could go all over town and people knew who we were. Clubs let us in for free because we would let them in for free. It was just a great time — and the fringe benefits were wonderful.”

VelAnne Rowland Clifton

61, internet marketer for Hill Country Visitors and former unofficial mayor of Luckenbach

Guarded 1979-1985 and 1988

“It was kind of cool that we were the first female guards. … It was a big step for women in the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, and sometimes people would come up out of the water and shout, ‘Right on,’ fists in the air, when they first saw us in the stands. It was quite righteous. I had like a dozen or so saves or assists in the six years I was there. We had to be able to handle the cleans, which meant hosing the slick pool out with fire hoses, hauling 100-pound steel gates up with a wench and swinging them onto the dam to release the flow, and hauling wet fire hoses up the hill afterwards. Those things were heavy!”

Charlie Petterson

84, retired from IBM

Guarded from 1955-1956

“It was a good job. I was going to business college. I’d go to school, then come here for eight hours, then go court my wife. We had four stands then. You could take a break if you got someone to take your spot on the stand. All we had to communicate was hand signals and hollering. I was head guard at one time.

“We worked eight-hour shifts, and on pool cleaning nights maybe until 2 or 3 a.m. the next day. Pool cleaning occurred on Thursday nights after the pool closed. We pulled the gates at the end of the pool to start draining. We washed the bottom starting at the shallow end with a fire hose. … When moss or duckweed grew in the deep end, we had a special cutter to drag on the bottom to cut it. We gathered the floating moss and removed it from the area and cleaned the walkways.”

Lori Wasserburger

59, physician

Guarded 1980-1983

“It was the best job ever. Something about the people who would come to swim, and there was something magical about the water. … We were all good friends, and we’d hang out after work. We had a softball team and camped together. The funniest thing was watching guys try not to look like they were watching the topless girls. Including the staff.

“Before they found the salamander, we’d spread chlorine on the rocks to kill algae and spray it all off. Someone dropped a bucket of chlorine once and there was a fish kill. I can’t believe the salamander survived.

“There would always be a guy who would fall asleep on his raft and drift over the line where you could have floats. (The guard on duty) would yell, ‘Hey, you on the raft!’ If the guy on the raft wouldn’t wake up, he’d get everyone on the hillside to yell with him: ‘Hey, you on the raft!’

“It’s always sunny at Barton Springs. No matter how bad your day was, it was always better here.”

Randy Leavitt

62, lawyer

Guarded 1972-1975

“We were in our youth. We didn’t have good sense, we didn’t exercise good judgment, but we had one hell of a good time.”

Elizabeth Campbell

50, paramedic

Guarded 1986 or 1987

“This job was the creme de la creme. The area by the dam would always be full of people on floats. Sometimes we’d have a mama duck with ducklings. We’d blow our whistle and shout, ‘Make room for the ducks!’ It was almost like babysitting and guarding the ducks at the same time. Even though I didn’t work here for a long time, it was a very pivotal time for me. It cemented my love of the city.”

Jon Hilsabeck

74, retired hospital administrator

Guarded 1959-1962

“This was THE place to be. The bottom of the pool was pretty dark. My greatest fear was losing a swimmer and not knowing it. I’d pick out the not-so-competent swimmers and keep an eye on them. If I’d spot one of them going under, I’d wait for them to come up. I still do that. And, of course, there were lots of real nice girls at Barton Springs.”

Frank Walters

56

Guarded 1981-1982

“I was just out of the service. This was my first job. All that regiment compared to sitting in a pair of shorts. It was night and day. I went from you had to have a uniform on to just a whistle. After the service, it was girls, girls, girls. I was 21 and I’d never seen anything like it.”

Mike Watson

60, retired from Dell Inc.

Guarded 1976-1980

“I was new to Austin. I came with the Air Force and had spare time. It started as a part-time job. It gave me a chance to meet people and learn everything about Austin. It was the center of a lot of what was going on — a great way of getting to know Austin in the 1970s.”

John Cook

55, student

Guarded 1979-1984

“I worked for the city through high school at other pools, then came to Barton Springs. That’s the pool everyone wanted to be at.”

Ray Cilek

55, general contractor

Guarded 1979-1982

“I worked the day after the Memorial Day Flood in 1982. We’d monitor the water until it started to go down. There was lots of brush, and we’d do a general cleaning. That and just teaching kids how to swim. There’s a current here. I’d tell them to put their head in and use their arms. That way you helped a kid rather than saved them.”

Mark Gronquist

46, recreation director at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Guarded 1986-1992

“My father, Wayne, was founder of the Zilker Park Posse and Save Barton Creek. That’s how we got involved. He brought us here as kids — always great summer days, an adventure every weekend. It was a happy place to go and a fun place to work. I don’t feel like it’s changed a whole lot, although the water clarity’s not as good.”

Eran Gronquist

45, systems administrator at University of Texas

Guarded 1989-1994

“It’s THE place to be in the summer in Austin. It’s the place to come. I was here every day anyway, so I decided I should get paid for it. I swam competitively, so it was a natural fit. This was the only place I ever considered guarding. It’s the most coveted.”

Brian Donovan

57, retired IRS employee

Guarded 1978-1982

“I remember a flood that came down the creek — a wall of water. The pool was open and we knew it was coming. I walked up there and saw a 10-foot wall of water so I had to get everyone out of the pool. It was a great job. I was in college and they worked around my college hours and you met a lot of girls. Whenever we’d have a lifeguard party, everyone would come. We’d come here to the pool late at night. We had a key to the back gate and everybody would swim. It’s a lot stricter now.”


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