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James R. Eubank, 87; Developer Set Swimming Records in His 80s

March 05, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

James R. Eubank, major real estate developer in Los Angeles and San Diego counties who set Amateur Athletic Union world swimming records as an octogenarian, has died. He was 87.

Eubank died Monday at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, Calif., after suffering two strokes and a brain hemorrhage Feb. 23.

In his 60s, Eubank developed Old California Restaurant Row, an enclave of some 20 restaurants in San Marcos, Calif., surrounded by shops and entertainment venues. Until his stroke, he worked daily in his management office at the north San Diego County complex.

Whether developing apartments or restaurants, offering candid opinions on development to the San Marcos City Council or streaking through the water on his daily 2,000-yard swim, Eubank seemed larger than life to those who encountered him.

"He had this huge shock of thick white hair. He looked like Lloyd Bridges at 50," Rick Reilly wrote of Eubank in Sports Illustrated last year.

At the time, Eubank held numerous world records in AAU masters swim competitions for the 85- to 89-year-old category.

He would set a record one year only to break it the next. He had won the annual Rough Water Swim in La Jolla every year in his age group for decades. In fact, he had earned so many medals he had lost count. They overflowed his office coatrack and had to be stored in boxes.

Nevertheless, last year Sports Illustrated's fortysomething Reilly brashly challenged Eubank to a private swim competition -- hoping Eubank's pacemaker and recent hernia operation might slow him down. The sportswriter lost.

"He beat me by about a length, but he could've beaten me by about the length of Omaha Beach," Reilly reported. "While he swam, it hit me that this is one of the coolest men I'd ever come across. Heroic. Classy. Brave. Buffed. Wise. Kind."

Born in Seattle, Eubank worked from childhood after his father abandoned the family when he was 5. He sold newspapers, worked in a gold mine and did other odd jobs. After moving to Los Angeles, he took night courses at USC to become a real estate broker, taught himself to swim and became a city lifeguard.

By the mid-1930s, he was swimming competitively against the likes of "Tarzan" star and 1932 Olympic gold medalist Buster Crabbe.

As World War II loomed, Eubank joined the Coast Guard. Known for his swimming prowess, he was one of 28 men recruited from all branches of the military for a secretive underwater reconnaissance unit -- a forerunner of the Navy SEALs and Army Special Services.

Sent to Burma as a "frogman," he swam through Japanese-controlled waters scouting enemy-held beaches.

In 1998, Eubank and other survivors of the "special regiment" were lauded for their underwater intelligence and sabotage efforts and given honorary green berets and membership in the Special Forces.

As a Los Angeles developer after the war, Eubank and a partner bought 70 acres near Baldwin Hills, one of the last areas still not subdivided on an original Spanish land grant passed down through heirs of E.J. "Lucky" Baldwin, and turned it into the site of apartments for 10,000 residents.

Eubank went on to build large tracts of homes in the Hollywood Hills and in the Stone Canyon area of Sherman Oaks, among other locations.

Throughout his life, he was never far from a swimming pool, which helped him maintain his muscular 160-pound, 5-foot-11 frame and youthful appearance.

"This masters swimming program is the greatest thing that ever happened to guys like me who like to swim," he told The Times in 1972, when the AAU program for swimmers older than 50 was in its third year. "It's fun to compete.... There's no reason why a track guy or a swimmer or a gymnast can't compete all his life. Why stop just because you leave school?"

When he was interviewed, Eubank had just defeated Crabbe in the 1,500-meter event -- 33 years after Crabbe had beaten him in an annual two-mile swim around Balboa Island.

"I finally got even," Eubank said, laughing.

Asked last year what goals could possibly be left, he told Sports Illustrated: "Well, the next age group is 90 and above. So, in a year or two I'm going to have to start getting in shape again."

Eubank is survived by his wife of 58 years, Vera; two sons, Jerry of Honolulu and Bob of Encinitas, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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