clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Joe Pecoraro, Chicago’s most famous lifeguard, serving under eight mayors, dead at 91

‘Joe Pec’ helped establish national standards for the profession. ‘How many lives have been saved because of Joe Pecoraro’s impact?’ a colleague from California said.

Joe Pecoraro retired in 2000 as the Chicago Park District’s chief lifeguard after 51 years on the job. He started in 1949 and served under eight mayors.
Joe Pecoraro retired in 2000 as the Chicago Park District’s chief lifeguard after 51 years on the job. He started in 1949 and served under eight mayors.
Bob Black / Sun-Times

Countless water rescues have been credited to Joe Pecoraro, who during a 51-year career under eight mayors rose from lifeguard to general superintendent of all of the Chicago Park District beaches and pools.

Responsible for 1,000 lifeguards, nearly 100 pools and 26 miles of beaches, Mr. Pecoraro was one of the best known lifeguards in the nation, according to Tom Gill, spokesman for the United States Lifesaving Association.

He died Sept. 2 at 91 at Central Baptist Village senior community in Norridge.

From 1982 to 1991, Mr. Pecoraro was president of the lifesaving group and was “instrumental in helping create a national training manual for open-water lifeguards, which standardized lifesaving procedures,” according to Bill Richardson, a former president of the association and retired chief lifeguard from Huntington Beach, Calif.

“How many lives have been saved,” Richardson said, “because of Joe Pecoraro’s impact?”

“Joe Pec” began his career in 1949, a time, before widespread air-conditioning or TV, that frequently saw the city’s beaches packed all summer. Lifeguards didn’t have radios then, communicating at a distance via whistles.

His mantra: “Always swim near a lifeguard.”

“A lot of my former lifeguards are now high-ranking supervisors in the police and fire departments, aldermen, doctors, lawyers, business executives,” Mr. Pecoraro once told Hospitals & Health Networks magazine. “But they’re lifeguards for life.”

Jerry Gavin, a retired Chicago lifeguard captain, said Mr. Pecoraro insisted guards keep up their training, telling them: “You have to be able to swim fast, so work out, work out, work out.”

Mr. Pecoraro described the job’s training requirements in a 1975 Chicago Sun-Times interview: “First, the applicant has to swim 200 yards in under three and a half minutes, 25 yards under water, and retrieve a 10-pound brick. . . They have to break front and rear strangleholds and tow the instructor 25 yards.”

He grew up on the Northwest Side, where he attended Smyser grade school. His father Tony was a shoemaker for Florsheim. After her children were older, his mother Marie worked as a customer-service manager at the Sears at Irving Park Road and Cicero Avenue.

“He spent a lot of time at Oak Street Beach,” Mr. Pecoraro’s daughter Mary Kelly said, “because that was the only option to get out of the apartment, where it was hot.”

He was a member of the swim teams at Schurz High School and DePaul University.

Joe Pecoraro, then about 25, wearing his lifeguard captain jersey.
Joe Pecoraro, then about 25, wearing his lifeguard captain jersey.
Provided

In 1949, at 19, he started working as a lifeguard at North Avenue Beach. Except during his time in the Army, where he taught swimming in Tokyo — he worked for the park district until retiring in 2000.

In 1956, he met Peggy Stewart, his future wife, at a singles dance at St. Bartholomew Church. They fell hard for each other and were married within six months.

His daughter said Mr. Pecoraro never forgot the Lake Michigan tragedy that claimed eight lives in 1954. For many years, it was called a seiche, but the National Weather Service said it’s more accurate to call it a meteorological tsunami, caused by strong, fast-moving storms.

Mr. Pecoraro also never forgot the rescues that failed, the ones that ended with lifeguards trying to console bereft mothers whose children could not be revived.

In his memoir “Naked Rescue,” he said Chicago lifeguards used a lifesaving method in the 1930s that later became known as the Heimlich maneuver.

He also wrote that some triathletes didn’t realize pool training doesn’t always prepare them for open-water swimming. At one triathlon, he said lifeguards had to pull so many struggling swimmers out of the lake that the rescue boats were in danger of sinking.

He was a member of the Illinois Water Polo Hall of Fame, the DePaul University Athletic Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

He taught swimming at DePaul for a couple of years and taught physical education on Mondays — his day off — at St. Edmund’s school in Oak Park.

In Washington, D.C. in 1986, Mr. Pecoraro was thrilled to meet a former lifeguard who went into politics after gaining fame in Hollywood — President Ronald Reagan. He said the president regaled him with rescue stories.

In addition to his wife Peggy and daughter Mary, Mr. Pecoraro is survived by his daughter Nancy and son Joseph Jr., sisters Petricia Brush and Jody Morhammer, his brother Frank and four grandchildren.

At his Sept. 13 funeral, Mr. Pecoraro’s casket was draped in a quilt made of T-shirts representing Chicago beaches and the U.S. Lifesaving Association. At the close of the funeral, his family played Stevie Wonder’s recording of “A Place in the Sun.”