Endless Summer 2019
Guardin’ of Eaton: How a Family From Denver Came to Make Its Mark on the Avalon Beach Patrol
By Dave Coskey
If someone were to mention “the first family of lifeguarding in Avalon,” surely the Wolf family would quickly come to mind. And for good reason. After all, Murray Wolf, the captain of the Avalon Beach Patrol since 1967, followed in the footsteps of his father and has been a member of the beach patrol for more than 60 years. Murray’s three sons, Matt, Erich and Tyler, have each served the beach patrol for more than 10 years. Collectively, they’ve played a huge part in the amazing safety record that the Avalon Beach Patrol has amassed in its 100-plus years of existence.
But before anyone in the Wolf family so much as blew a whistle on any of the beaches of Avalon, there were three other brothers who were legends on the Avalon beaches … the Eatons: Arthur “Bud,” William “Willie” and Charles “Chas,” or just “the kid.” U.S. Census records show that the Eaton family resided in Denver. A nephew surmises that they came east to lifeguard seasonally in Avalon.
“I suspect there were many good times,” says nephew Bud Eaton, “because there were many discussions and memories of Avalon.”
Today it’s impossible to determine exactly what led the Eatons to Avalon, but one possibility was their grandmother Mary Eliza Eaton, born in 1850 in Mammoth Cave, Ky. Investors in Philadelphia were involved in what eventually would become a national park in Kentucky and coincidentally Mary Eliza spent considerable time in Philadelphia and at her daughter’s summer home in Avalon named Brown Shutters. Mary Eliza’s published obituary following her death in Avalon in June 1939 referred to her family lineage to Daniel Boone, although family genealogists have since questioned the validity of that claim. The obituary also mentioned that Mary Eliza was revered as a horsewoman in equine circles in Louisville and Atlanta.
However they got to Avalon, the Eatons ended up on the beach block of 21st Street. Looking for summer employment, the oldest two brothers, Arthur and William, joined the Avalon Beach Patrol in 1927. Arthur would assume the position of captain following H.L. Crowthers in 1928. William followed his brother as captain in 1929, and held the position until 1941.
The 1939 Avalon Beach Patrol
William established himself as something of a legend on the Avalon beaches. Described by many as an outstanding physical specimen, William set standards to make the patrol more professional – especially in the level of skill and the efficiency in how their jobs were performed. During his tenure as captain, guards would report two weeks in advance for conditioning and training. This included daily swims of more than a quarter of a mile from the public dock on Princeton Harbor with Eaton himself setting the pace. He would also play the part of a drowning victim. Each guard would have to break his “panicked” hold and make the lifesaving swim with him back to the dock.
The Depression obviously had an effect on the Borough’s ability to pay the beach patrol, and Eaton fought for the lifeguards with Borough commissioners each year. With the backing of some taxpayer associations, he made the argument that it was impossible to field a professional, well-trained patrol unless it was paid at a commensurate level. During the Depression and Williams’ tenure, that went anywhere from $80 to $125 a month. Before the Depression, guards were paid $100 monthly. Salaries were affected once again in 1940 when it was announced that the Borough would declare bankruptcy. William also successfully lobbied for uniforms for all members of the beach patrol and the construction of the Avalon’s first Beach House headquarters on 21st Street. Until this point, each guard was responsible for his own gear. Now the Borough would provide swimsuits, sweatshirts, rescue cans and whatever equipment was necessary for a professional experience. The Beach House evolved into a facility that provided lockers for guards, medical facilities and restrooms. William also worked to expand beach coverage past 32nd Street, which was the southernmost protected beach in 1929.
Using woodworking skills that would serve him later in his life, William constructed what is believed by many to be the first surf rescue board on East Coast beaches. He is said to have carried this board with him while on patrol. Long and heavy, it no doubt contributed to William’s outstanding physical condition. The board survives today and is on display in the Avalon Historical Museum.
William also introduced the concept of apprentice guards – a designation given to any and all first-year guards. A guard would carry that designation, along with reduced pay, until his second full season on the patrol. William also introduced the Junior Beach Patrol filled with 30-40 volunteers to begin to groom the youngsters on the island for the beach patrol. He was interested in developing a farm system of sorts.
Coincidentally, after Avalon began working through bankruptcy, William ended his tenure on the beach following the summer of 1941. Again, it’s impossible to know, but it’s plausible that as finances tightened beyond anything anyone had experienced in Avalon in the past – that might be what convinced William it was time to concentrate on his own contracting and cabinet-making business in Fair Lawn, N.J., through the 1950s.
William and his wife Sarah would make one additional move – this one a big move – to California to begin work for the Scripts Institution of Oceanography. He stayed at Scripts for many years. According to his nephew, officially his title at Scripts was laboratory mechanic. William assisted scientists in a wide range of projects. And his position took him all over the world.
Co-workers referred to William as “Mr. Fix-it” because whatever was broken, William could fix it. And his easy-going personality made him a favorite among all co-workers regardless of position – scientist to janitor.
William passed away in December 2000 in LaJolla, Calif. His only known remaining relative is his nephew Bud, who resides in California.
The Avalon Beach Patrol has an amazing record of more than a century of protecting swimmers on the Avalon beaches. Over the decades, so many families have contributed to that legacy – the Wolfs, the Sutters, the Leahys are only a very few. And no doubt there will be even more in the future. But there’s no question regarding the impact of William Eaton and his brothers Bud and Charles.
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