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Oldest County Lifeguard at End of Career

March 29, 1990|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two generations, Richard Evans has stood sentry over the tawny beaches and federal-blue waves. Perhaps 30 people, by his commander's estimate, owe their lives to him.

But the tide of time caught up with the oldest full-time lifeguard in Los Angeles County. Gray-haired but athletic, Evans retired recently at 64, forced not by age but by a knee injury to leave the post he has held since 1947.

"Time to go, time to go," mused the Manhattan Beach lifeguard, who at one point sued the county for age discrimination in order to continue his career.

"When you get to be my age, you start to slow down, and this injury didn't help."

Evans' career came to an end this month in much the same way it had started--saving a swimmer from a riptide. While making a rescue last autumn, he said, he stepped into an inshore hole in the sand and tore the cartilage in his knee.

The injury helped bring to an end a vocation that began as a part-time job after World War II, when Evans, just out of the U.S. Army Air Forces and enrolled at Occidental College, went looking for summer work.

With a friend, he came to Hermosa Beach to take a one-day lifeguard test. The applicants swam a race around the old Hermosa Pier, then demonstrated their lifesaving techniques by towing a land line out to a buoy that, had it been a victim, could have been pulled to shore.

"They had an interview, you know, 'Why do you want to be a lifeguard?' " Evans recalled. "I said the usual thing, that I loved the beach."

But the real reasons, he said, were that the money--$1.09 an hour--was good and the job seemed easy compared to construction work.

He hadn't finished his first day on the job when he was called upon to save his first life. "They put me in the tower at 5th Street, right here at Hermosa," he recalled. "It was a busy weekend, it was crowded, and I was just sitting there when three people started yelling for help."

A father and his two teen-age children were caught in a riptide, and Evans ran into the surf and pulled them in. He expected them not to show appreciation. The other lifeguards had warned him that drowning people are usually too embarrassed to express their gratitude.

And indeed, the three walked off up The Strand after Evans had saved their lives, only to return a few moments later with a hamburger for him, just to say thanks.

He was 21 years old. In the years that ensued, his commander, Lt. Wally Millican, guesses that Evans has saved more than 30 lives. Just this month, in fact, he pulled a heartbroken 16-year-old girl to shore after she tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Hermosa Beach pier, police reports show.

"He's an amazing man," Millican said. "He has spent his entire 43 years of service right out here on the front lines, out in the sand."

Of the 110 permanent and 630 part-time lifeguards on the county's roster of personnel, only a handful are older than 60 and none of the full-time lifeguards are older than Evans, said Eric Dourdon, assistant director of personnel for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors.

Each year, Evans has had to qualify for the job by passing a rigorous physical trial. To keep fit, he said, he swims a mile at least three times a week. Until his knee surgery, he also ran barefoot in the sand. At 5 feet, 10 inches tall, he weighs a muscular 185 pounds. His blood pressure is 130 over 85. He wears glasses, he says, but only to read. In the course of his career, he has never reached a drowning swimmer too late to save the person's life.

But Evans' career path hasn't been easy. For most of the time he has been a lifeguard, Evans has also held down a full-time job with the Los Angeles Unified School District, first as an elementary school teacher and later as a science consultant. For those 31 years, Evans was listed with the county as a "recurrent" lifeguard, on call summers and weekends when staffing was short.

As a recurrent, his age was not an issue. But for full-time lifeguards, the county had an age limit. They would not hire anyone over 35. So in 1984, while Evans was still working for the school district, he allowed the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to use him as a plaintiff in a suit seeking to remove age barriers from public safety jobs.

The suit eventually was dropped because the county that same year voluntarily removed the age cap in the wake of a federal court decision that struck down similar limits in the county fire and sheriff's departments. The decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, clearing the way for Evans to become a full-time lifeguard two years ago at the age of 62, when he retired from teaching.

His career, part time and full time, has spanned several generations of change in the South Bay. Evans remembers a time before the waves were dotted with the slick, dark wet suits of surfers, a time when a beachfront cottage could be had for $90 a month.

Contrary to the claims that the local beaches were once pristine, he remembers frequent close encounters with raw sewage in the late 1940s.

But some things don't change.

The summers still smell of cocoa butter in the warm wind. The winter mornings are still milky with fog. There is still the swoosh, in quiet moments, of the heaving surf and the cries of distant gulls.

And when a bronzed Adonis in Ray-Bans steps up to his post, the girls in the bikinis still come running up the steps of the tower to ask coyly what time it is.

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