August 2019

Centennial Summer: Looking Back at the Beach Patrol’s First Century

By Dave Bontempo

Bill Gallagher is shown addressing the crowd at the 1970 Lifeguard Ball, and in 2015 signaling the start of the 45th annual Captain Bill Gallagher 10-Mile Island Run.

“All Summer Long,” a monster hit for Kid Rock in 2008, also could be used to describe the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2019.


From Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, the Sea Isle City beach tags – shown perhaps a million times each year for beach admittance – displayed the milestone, with the intent to honor the guardians of the grounds. All summer long.


If the midsummer parades, speeches, tours, Hall of Fame induction and reunions figuratively blew out the candles at this party, the focus on the patrol’s community involvement served the cake. This has been a time of high visibility for beach-patrol functions that extend beyond whistles, flags, hand signals and anticipation of ocean currents. Its realm exceeds rules, regulations, beach-safety tips and even the racing circuit, which has produced many stalwart performers.


At its core, the patrol represents public safety and community engagement.


“We are very proud of what we do here in Sea Isle City and I believe we are more involved with the community than many other patrols,” says Renny Steele, the 34-year chief of the Sea Isle unit. “We have a proud tradition and image, not only in town but among other South Jersey patrols. I believe the public appreciates and values these contributions, especially those that have gone beyond our job description. I am proud to be a part of that.”


Throughout its history, the patrol has conducted blood drives, hosted tennis tournaments, unfurled a 20-year junior mascot program, 40-year-old mascot school and a 49-year-old event for runners, the Captain Bill Gallagher 10-Mile Run (Aug. 3, 5:30 p.m.).


The Gallagher Run is a signature event, routinely attracting from 1,000-1,400 athletes and giving Sea Isle City an unofficial holiday weekend. The race brings families, athletes and business here. It starts at the beach patrol headquarters at 44th Street and the beach.


The event goes all the way back to 1970 and is nearly half the age of the patrol, which facilitates it by working the water stations, combining forces with medical personnel, and giving awards in many categories.


There are trophies for top-10 finishers and the top two winners of age groups ranging from 16-and-under to 70-and-over. There are team plaques, corporate team winners, awards for top running clubs and a beach-patrol division.


Interestingly, the beach-patrol section is merely one part of the equation. The event was begun by Gallagher as an endurance race for patrol members at the suggestion of one of his guards, a runner. Participation numbers were low, the event was expanded to the public and it blossomed.


 Beach Patrol administration in the early 1970s: Captain Bill Gallagher (center) is flanked by

lieutenants (from left) Mike McHale, Tom McCann, Stu Bakely and Jerry Gehman.


Gallagher was the beach patrol captain from 1970-77 and this race spans the tenures of five subsequent patrol heads – Tom McCann twice, Mike McHale, Steward Bakley and Steele, who continually elevated the event.


During Steele’s administration, the race also became philanthropic by partnering with For Pete’s Sake, an organization that sends cancer patients and families on weeklong respites to donated homes along the New Jersey Shore and East Coast. It was founded by Peter Bossow Jr., a Sea Isle City Beach Patrol guard who died in 1999 from testicular cancer.


Although Gallagher and McHale remain connected to the race, they were tabbed by the centennial committee to deliver a seminar on beach-patrol history to the public in mid-July. They worked on it for several months and presented it to the midst of the celebration weekend. McHale and Gallagher also are members of the SICBP Alumni Hall of Fame.


The former captains discussed the evolution of lifesaving equipment over the years, along with some anecdotes shaping their roles in creating regulations.


Gallagher remembers his baptism by fire on the first day leading the patrol. There was a riptide, two girls in trouble in the water, and he and a partner used the jetties as a way to reach them.


“The jetties are sharp and rocky,” he says. “He and I got cut up, they were razor cuts. After that rescue, we decided nobody can go out without a buoy,” he adds, referring to the miniature torpedo with the rope attached, allowing a guard to throw a lifeline to someone and pull them in.


McHale has a high-profile presence in Sea Isle City. He gives well-attended summer seminars on the entire history of Sea Isle City, some of which he impacted by serving as mayor. McHale has a treasure chest of beach-patrol stories, ranging from rescuing an oil tanker trapped offshore and coming to the aid of a frightened family.


“We are always stressing to people that you have moms on that beach, you have kids on that beach and you are being paid to watch, there is no fooling around,” McHale says. “There are maybe 150 people in front of you at a given moment, and this is serious. It’s a great job in the sense that you are being paid to work out and people appreciate you, but it is also very serious.”


McHale and Gallagher illustrated the point with a story that started with a frantic mother early one afternoon.


“She came up and told us that she could not find her daughter, who had been on an unprotected beach,” McHale recalls. “The girl is 10 years old. She had been on a raft and it was a windy day. We search all afternoon; nobody can find her and it becomes 5pm. You know we can’t leave, we have to find this girl. We organize a door-to-door search all the way through town and we notify the Coast Guard. Finally, at 11:30 that night, the Coast Guard was able to locate her. She was on a raft 10 miles out to sea, crying. There was a nice ending to that situation.”


Stories like this are a template for the guards, whose peak service occurs here during their college years. For many, this was the birth of their adult work ethic and first major role of caretakers. They went on to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, casino executives, nurses and EMTs. Since 1919, the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol has launched a plethora of those journeys.


One look at the 2019 beach tag is an instant connection to them. All summer long.


The milestone summer will live on a little longer at the Sea Isle City Historical Museum, which created a special display of SICBP artifacts and photos collected during the past century.  The exhibit will be on display into the fall. Located on the first floor of the Sea Isle City Library at 4800 Central Ave., the museum is open to the public on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10am to 3pm; Monday evenings from 6-8; and Saturdays from 10am to 1pm. No admission fee is required to enter the Historical Museum.

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