When Chicago’s DuSable High School built a aquatic dynasty more than half a century ago, Ed Kirk was the captain and star of its swim team.
Swimming three strokes in the individual 150-yard medley in 1950, he’s believed to have been the first African-American statewide swim champ in Illinois, according to sports historian Robert Pruter.
Mr. Kirk, who has died in Florida at 87, also was the first African-American swimmer named a high school All-American, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
He got a full ride on a swimming scholarship to Tennessee State University and went on to become a marathon swimmer and a beloved swimming and water polo coach who also trained lifeguards in Chicago and Florida, where he moved in 1993 after retiring from the Chicago Park District and the Postal Service. For years, he worked at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center in Brandon, Florida.
Swimming is “part of me,” Mr. Kirk said in a 2012 TV interview. “It’s in my bones.”
Mr. Kirk, who’d been diagnosed with heart failure, died in Tampa in April, according to Esther Kirk, his wife since 1973, who said he was still coaching until about a week before he died.
A Chicago memorial service was held last month.
When he became an Illinois swim champ as a DuSable senior in 1950, “I was really proud,” he said in the TV interview.
“He told me that Coach [William] Mackie had told him no black had competed in a state swim meet,” Esther Kirk said.
But that breakthrough almost didn’t happen. A meet judge said young Ed had made an illegal turn in the preliminaries. But Chicago native Wally Ris, a gold-medal swimmer at the 1948 Olympics in London, was there and vouched for Mr. Kirk, according to an article in Swimming World.
“Ris was adamant that he had watched the race closely and was certain Kirk did not make an illegal turn,” wrote Bruce Wigo, a past CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame who heard the story from Mr. Kirk and other former DuSable swimmers. “On the word of Wally Ris, the official’s decision was overruled, and Kirk went on to win the final and record an All-American time that also broke the state record.”
Mr. Kirk’s wife said the white swimmers at the contest also had his back, saying “ ‘If that black kid gets DQ’d [disqualified], we’re walking out.’ ”
“I appreciated them and thanked them for it,” Mr. Kirk recalled in the TV interview.
He started swimming after his mother died when he was about 8, and he and his sisters were sent to live in foster homes, according to his wife. At 9, he was thrilled to see kids splash around in the pool at Washington Park.
“He jumped in,” his wife said. “A lifeguard had to fish him out because he didn’t know how to swim.”
She said that, at 15, he worked doing cleaning and maintenance at the old Edgewater Beach Hotel and, in 1946, became a Chicago Park District lifeguard. He also worked as a lifeguard at the Wabash Avenue YMCA, 3763 S. Wabash.
“That’s the only one that blacks could swim in,” his wife said. Thanks to that Y, he and other DuSable swimmers got in extra practice time.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, kids from Lane Technical High School dominated Chicago meets. But DuSable — probably about a third of its size — “was the only team that ever actually challenged Lane Tech’s dominance,” according to Pruter, who said that, in Mackie, DuSable was “blessed with one of the top high school coaches in the city.”
Jim Crow laws and segregation severely restricted African-American swimming. But hundreds of years ago, some African civilizations had strong swimming reputations, Wigo said.
“To have Ed Kirk bring back one of the most significant African traditions and become an All-American after African-Americans were denied opportunities to swim,” Wigo said, “was a pretty tremendous achievement.”
Seth Patner credits “Coach Ed” with helping him, through a parks program, to make the varsity swim team at Kenwood Academy.
“He got me to straighten my freestyle stroke and relax so I got my time down,” said Patner, now a teacher at Steinmetz College Prep. “I made it onto the varsity team, which was miraculous.”
Patner said the coach would tell him, “ ‘You just got to go at your own pace. The minute you try to hurry up to catch up, you’re finished.’ It really gave me perspective.”
Mr. Kirk also is survived by daughters Catherine, Erin and Loana; sons Alden, Edward Jr. and Ivan; sisters Beatrice and Annabell; seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.