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On the Beach

The Hottie in the Lifeguard Booth Could Be a Lawyer

May 29, 2000|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That tanned guy in the neon orange swimsuit atop the guard tower at the beach this afternoon could very well be a mortgage broker, a physics professor, a lawyer or an airline pilot.

The ranks of Southern California's vaunted lifeguard corps are sprinkled with men and women who halt more cerebral careers, and even take vacation time, for the chance to hang whistles around their necks and watch the ocean for trouble.

"My law practice is my vocation, and lifeguarding is really an avocation," said Will Maguire, 44, a copyright attorney who has been a "recurrent," or seasonal lifeguard, at Santa Monica Beach for 26 years. "Getting a trademark registration is fun, but it's not the same as saving a life."

Southern California beach operators hire four to five times the number of lifeguards for the summer than they have on staff the rest of the year. While most of them are students with downtime between semesters, many are professionals who feel at least as comfortable in a pair of board shorts as they do in a shirt and tie--office-bound intellectuals and working stiffs who spend weekdays staring at computer screens and weekends gazing out at the ocean.

Wade Womack, a mortgage broker in the Internet division of Irvine-based New Century, will be back at the ocean this summer, his 15th as a recurrent at Newport Beach.

"Lifeguarding's a great break [from] sitting in front of a computer all day," said Womack, 31.

Womack, who started lifeguarding in high school to avoid a burger-flipping job, likes lifeguarding so much that he "burns" at least a week of vacation time each summer to do it.

"No paycheck will ever stack up to . . . helping people out and saving lives," he said. "There's nothing more gratifying than that."

The only reason Womack doesn't lifeguard full time is because, at $15 an hour, the pay won't finance his lifestyle.

"When I'm at work, I'm doing what most people like to do when they're off of work. They want to go to a beach or a comedy club," said Mark Herman, 30, a bartender at the Irvine Improv and part-time lifeguard at Newport Beach. "I get the best of both worlds. I get to make money while I'm enjoying myself."

Herman has been bartending for seven years and lifeguarding a few days a week for 12 years. A renaissance athlete who enjoys swimming, water polo, mountain biking, tennis and golf, he enjoys the flexibility of his jobs.

"Whenever I want to take the time off, I get it off," said Herman, who has a master's degree in psychology.

Arthur Verge, a history professor at El Camino College in Torrance, takes advantage of his summers off by lifeguarding at Santa Monica Beach. This summer will be his 27th. His father also was a history professor and lifeguard.

"I love teaching because you touch and shape people's lives," said Verge, 44, who finds lifeguarding "really physical . . . a wonderful meeting of the mind and body."

Andy Lightle, 32, has been the buyer at All Care Animal Referral Center in Fountain Valley for four years. He has been a summer lifeguard at Huntington Beach for 14.

Lightle sometimes does double duty, working a full shift from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the animal hospital before heading over to the beach for eight hours on a patrol boat or in a lookout tower.

A high school swimmer and water polo player who now lives in Aliso Viejo, he continues to give up his summers because "you get to watch the sunset, you're outdoors, you get to smell the ocean breeze."

He's also come to see the other lifeguards as a second family.

"They're people I can trust with my life without question," Lightle said. "I can hang off a cliff and know they're not gonna screw up."

There is one downside to the job, according to several lifeguards, including Womack, who is referred to as "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff. Beachcombers can't resist asking where they can find former "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson Lee.

"There's no kissing in the tower," he tells them. "And we're better than 'Baywatch.' "

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