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For parks aquatics boss, firing over Chicago lifeguards scandal a hard fall from the family business

Eric Fischer, one in a family of lifeguards, started with a glamor gig at Oak Street Beach. He was fired after being accused of ignoring a complaint involving one of his daughters, also a lifeguard at Oak Street Beach.

Some of the Chicago Park District IDs that Eric Fischer had over the years. He was fired Nov. 2 from his $100,000-a-year job as the district’s aquatics boss, accused of ignoring a teenage lifeguard’s complaint about abusive behavior that named his daughter among her hazers.
Some of the Chicago Park District IDs that Eric Fischer had over the years. He was fired Nov. 2 from his $100,000-a-year job as the district’s aquatics boss, accused of ignoring a teenage lifeguard’s complaint about abusive behavior that named his daughter among her hazers.
Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

The man at the center of a Chicago Park District scandal over complaints by lifeguards of abusive behavior and sexual harassment by more senior lifeguards started his career with a little lie.

The son of a popular Southwest Side lifeguard, Eric Fischer fudged his age on an application to be a lifeguard in 1983, saying he’d already finished two years at St. Laurence High School when actually he was just 13 years old.

For his first assignment, he lucked into a glamor gig, working at Oak Street Beach, where his father also had worked.

For Fischer, who rose to captain of the Oak Street lifeguards before moving up to head all park district aquatics programs, lifeguarding has been the family business. Besides his father, his children also landed coveted gigs at Oak Street Beach.

As lifeguards there, the youngest Fischers had to memorize the same expletive-filled “fight song” adapted from a ditty said to have been brought home from the Navy by an older Fischer relative.

If rookie lifeguards forgot the words, they’d face humiliating punishments from more senior colleagues. To help make sure they didn’t, the song was posted on a wall in the lifeguards’ room. It starts like this:

C--- s-----, m-----f-----, Eat a bag of s---

C--- bag, d----- bag, bite your mother’s t—

We’re the best lifeguards, all the others s---

Oak Street, Oak Street, Rah rah f---.

The brazen profanity led the father of a teenage lifeguard to complain to his friend Michael Kelly, then the parks superintendent, in August 2019. The man’s daughter, a lifeguard assigned to Oak Street, was appalled to have to chant those words during morning pushups. Her father emailed the superintendent, asking him to remove the lyrics from the wall “before press or somebody runs with it,” advising park bosses to “get on it quietly.”

The rest of what the father and his wife told the superintendent about the sexual harassment, hazing and shoving he said their daughter faced at work ultimately would lead, several investigations later, to the end of Fischer’s Chicago Park District career.

Fischer, 51, was fired Nov. 2 from his $100,000-a-year job, accused of ignoring the complaint by that teenage lifeguard, who named his daughter among her hazers and said she’d been shoved into a wall, called profane and sexually degrading names by coworkers and left alone for hours at her post for refusing to take part in their drinking parties and on-the-job drug use.

Also booted were Adam Bueling, the aquatics manager who inherited Fischer’s former post as beaches and pool manager, and Alonzo Williams, Fischer’s boss.

The high-level terminations came after the release of a 43-page report by a former federal prosecutor hired to investigate whether parks managers protected lifeguards who reported abusive treatment of lifeguards by their more senior colleagues.

Attorney Valarie Hays speaks at a news conference at Jesse White Park after her law firm conducted an investigation into the Chicago Park District’s handling of sexual harassment and other other misconduct by lifeguards.
Attorney Valarie Hays speaks at a news conference at Jesse White Park after her law firm conducted an investigation into the Chicago Park District’s handling of sexual harassment and other other misconduct by lifeguards.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

The investigation found that Fischer, as assistant director of recreation, “failed to take any corrective actions” — such as reporting the abuse the teenager from Oak Street described in a February 2020 email to him.

Fischer told investigators he didn’t see her message for months.

Investigators also questioned whether Fischer’s daughter’s being accused of handing out Jell-O shots to underage rookie lifeguards at an after-hours initiation prompted the superintendent to have his aides conduct an internal investigation rather than turning it over to the park district’s inspector general until after a second lifeguard came forward with more graphic complaints that were passed on to Kelly by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office.

Fischer, his wife and his daughter did not respond to interview requests.

Kelly resigned from his $230,000-a-year post as parks superintendent in October.

Michael Kelly, then the Chicago Park District’s superintendent, at an August news conference at which he defended his handling of the lifeguard scandal. In October, facing firing, he resigned.
Michael Kelly, then the Chicago Park District’s superintendent, at an August news conference at which he defended his handling of the lifeguard scandal. In October, facing firing, he resigned.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

That was hours after Lightfoot urged that Kelly, 50, be fired, saying: “The culture of sexual abuse, harassment, and coercion that has become pervasive within the district’s aquatics department lifeguard program under his leadership, combined with the superintendent’s lack of urgency or accountability as new facts have come to light, is unacceptable.”

The parks’ interim inspector general and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx continue to investigate.

“It’s shocking to learn how long this disgraceful conduct seems to have existed,” Avis LaVelle, then the park board’s president, said in announcing the firings and issuing apologies to victims.

Avis LaVelle resigned as president of the Chicago Park District board amid pressure over what allies of Mayor Lori Lightfoot called her “tone-deaf” response to the accusations from lifeguards at city beaches and pools of abusive behavior and sexual harassment by more senior lifeguards.
Avis LaVelle resigned as president of the Chicago Park District board amid pressure over what allies of Mayor Lori Lightfoot called her “tone-deaf” response to the accusations from lifeguards at city beaches and pools of abusive behavior and sexual harassment by more senior lifeguards.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

LaVelle ended up another casualty of the scandal, resigning Wednesday amid pressure over what allies of Lightfoot called her “tone-deaf” response to the allegations from lifeguards at city beaches and pools of abusive behavior and sexual harassment by more senior lifeguards.

Of the park district employees disciplined, Fischer had the longest parks career by far, beginning at 13 on famed Oak Street Beach.

Tucked in a crook of DuSable Lake Shore Drive, the popular beach has long drawn many of the beautiful people. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the go-to beach for Playboy models, with what was then the Playboy Building just across the way and Hugh Hefner’s mansion also nearby.

“1000 N Lakeshore Drive. Center of the Universe,” reads the “OakStGuards” Instagram account. “A beach of legacy and tradition.”

Three generations of Fischers are part of that tradition.

Eric Fischer grew up on the Southwest Side, the oldest of Arthur and Joyce Fischer’s three sons.

Art Fischer was a Chicago firefighter who, while assigned to the Chicago Fire Department’s Air Sea Rescue Marine Unit in 1982, was hurt on the job badly enough to warrant a city payment toward his medical bills. Long before that, he became a Chicago Park District “junior laborer” in 1955, making $1 an hour at age 11. He started as a lifeguard the summer he was 18.

His titles changed from natatorium instructor — what the park district calls its year-round lifeguards — to beach manager the summer little Eric was 3 and to senior lifeguard the one summer in 1980 when his wife briefly held a lifeguarding job, too.

Eric Fischer doing swimming instruction in 2014.
Eric Fischer doing swimming instruction in 2014.
Al Podgorski / Sun-Times file

Eric Fischer learned to swim at Curie High School through a park district program, he told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. And he played water polo, a sport his father refereed.

Park records don’t detail Fischer’s parents’ assignments, but former guards remember Art Fischer staffing Oak Street and Calumet beaches and Curie High’s pool, often with his son.

When Eric Fischer landed his summer lifeguard job in 1983, he made $5.45 an hour. Though he was underage, his application said he was 16, and, under education, listed St. Laurence, starting in 1981. The park district blacked out his date of birth, citing privacy restrictions.

He stuck with that birthdate until 1991, fixing it before applying for a year-round lifeguarding job.

When he was 18, his father was killed in a crash on the Stevenson Expressway. He’d pulled his van over to the side of the expressway shortly before midnight on May 12, 1988, and a car hit it. At his wake, an honor guard of lifeguards stood by his casket.

Eric Fischer went to Loyola University Chicago on an aquatics scholarship, playing water polo on its nationally ranked team until the school dropped the sport.

He became a natatorium instructor in 1994.

Fischer married into an even bigger parks family in 1995. His wife, then Wendy Sarna, worked as a lifeguard for three summers in the late 1980s while her father Joe Sarna was the park district’s supervisor of recreation. After 30 years with the district, he left for the mayor’s office of special events. Mayor Richard M. Daley tapped him in the 1990s to be the city’s sport fishing coordinator.

In 2000, now having a baby daughter, Fischer was promoted to acting beaches and pools manager when famed lifeguard Joe Pecoraro retired after 51 years.

Pecoraro’s permanent replacement made Fischer assistant manager of beaches and pools in 2001 and handed Fischer and another male parks employee the duties of Erin Joyce, the park district’s only female supervisor in the administrative office, according to a gender-discrimination lawsuit she filed against the park district and won.

Joyce said in her suit she was demoted in 2002 to a lower-paying job after her bosses found out she participated in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation. In support of her demotion, park district officials presented a letter Fischer wrote — which wasn’t in her personnel file — describing Joyce as insubordinate, unprofessional, deceitful and not deserving of a promotion or raise. Joyce declined to comment.

In 2004, Fischer was named assistant manager of beaches and pools. In 2012, he was promoted to manager of Chicago’s 24 beaches and 92 pools.

“I manage one of the largest Lifeguard Services in the world,” he said on his application for the job. “I have worked my way up through our agency while continually improving myself as a public servant.”

In April 2019, he was promoted to assistant director of recreation.

That was shortly before the teenage lifeguard whose complaint ended his career would later say she was called sexually degrading names, pushed around and punished when she objected.

The lifeguard, then 17, later emailed her bosses that, at an alcohol-fueled initiation, Eric Fischer’s daughter Kelly Fischer passed around Jell-O shots.

Kelly Fischer, now 23, couldn’t be reached. She had put in four summers at Oak Street, the last with her father listed as her supervisor.

She was gone by 2019, but her siblings remained. Kate Fischer, now 20, worked at Oak Street Beach in 2017 and later at North Avenue Beach.

Zachary Fischer got his first Chicago lifeguard job in 2019, when he’d just finished 10th grade and was about to turn 16. Park district paperwork doesn’t show where he landed. But he requested Oak Street.

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