Career Built on the Water : Grand Old Man of Rowing, 85, Hangs It Up at L.B. Boathouse

Times Staff Writer

His career and evolvement as a storied character were built on love for the water. Expertly, he dived, swam and rowed, and taught others to do the same.

Known as the Grand Old Man of Rowing, Pete Archer turned 85 Saturday, a few days after he retired from the Long Beach Parks and Recreation Department's marine division.

"About time they got rid of the old bastard," Archer joked in his excited, high-pitched voice. He had returned last week to the Marine Stadium boathouse to retrieve some belongings.

64-Year Involvement

There, for 21 years, he had maintained and repaired the fleet for the Long Beach Rowing Center and Cal State Long Beach crew. His involvement in the city's recreation actually spanned 64 years. He coached swimming, water polo and rowing, and was a lifeguard.

"Water has a soothing, exhilarating effect on everybody," explained Archer, whose eyes, behind glasses, are the color of a pale ocean. "It relaxes you. I've always said you can't work a mathematics problem and swim at the same time."

John Van Blom, a master rower and former coach of the Cal State Long Beach crew, knows that he might never have become a four-time Olympian had Archer not established the sport in Long Beach in the early 1930s. Van Blom, who in 1964 was a member of Archer's physical education class at Wilson High School, remembered with amusement that Archer looked then much as he does now.

"He seemed kind of old then, but it seems that he hasn't changed since," Van Blom said. "He's been around forever."

Boathouse Named for Him

Standing in the boathouse (renamed in his honor in 1981), Archer was as much of a fixture as the shells themselves, stacked to the ceiling, or the sculls and sweeps with their colorful flag-like blades, lined up like erect soldiers.

But Archer is short and, due to one artificial hip and one bad one, no longer stands erect.

"My whole damn body's arthritic," said Archer as he walked through the boathouse with a limp that was perky nonetheless. It's impossible for him to step into one of the long, narrow boats, and he mourns that he can no longer row.

He still swims, though, three times a week at Silverado Park with Astrid, his wife of 51 years.

Born in Salida, Colo., Alva Milton Archer acquired a taste for pools and the sea as a child during family summer trips to California. When his father retired from the railroad, the family moved to Long Beach in 1923.

He learned to swim at the Long Beach Bathhouse, which was part of the Pike Amusement Park on the downtown shoreline. It cost a quarter to swim there.

"I'd go up in the balcony and dive off when the lifeguard wasn't looking," Archer recalled. "I was an ornery little bastard."

In 1925, while a 19-year-old senior at Poly High School, Archer and four other people started the first recreation department in Long Beach.

He went to Long Beach City College, where he started the swimming team. He began a 40-year coaching career at Wilson High in 1928, and the following year taught swimming at the beach, which he did every summer for 25 years.

Taught at Lagoon

When Colorado Lagoon was dredged in 1929, Archer and Lilly Mae Kelsey started an outdoor swimming and diving program there.

"Our dressing rooms were in the broom closets in the restrooms, which are still there along Colorado (Street)," he said.

In 1932, Marine Stadium was built and more than 100,000 people lined its banks for the Olympic rowing events. "I helped out, cleaned the docks, did anything that had to be done," Archer said. "I was a peon."

After the Olympics, Archer learned to row from Fred Wood, an English boat builder. Archer then started a rowing program in the stadium for Wilson and Poly students, training them on two 16-man rowing barges. He coached the boys, Astrid coached the girls.

Roof Fell in Quake

At 5:54 p.m. on March 10, 1933, Archer was working in the locker room at Poly High when the great earthquake struck. The roof fell on the lockers, jamming them so that the boys could not get their clothes out. Archer gave each boy one of the long swimming suits that were fashionable then to wear home.

The quake cracked the pool, which had to be condemned. That forced Archer to drop an adult swimming program and start night adult rowing at the stadium.

A graduate of USC, Archer coached swimming, water polo, rowing and even football at Wilson, where the aquatic center bears his name, until 1968. He also coached teams from Compton High, Compton College and Long Beach City College.

"He was my swimming coach at Wilson," said Jim Rae, now chief of the Long Beach lifeguards. "He was a super diver and a super coach. I couldn't have asked for a more dedicated individual."

In 1968, when the rowing center was built at Marine Stadium for the Olympic trials, Archer was called in to maintain the 28 shells the city had bought.

"The secret is constant maintenance, to never let them get worn down to where it becomes a major job to repair them," Archer said.

He had moved out most of his tools, but his workshop in the boathouse still held his vise and jars of nuts, bolts, screws and washers. There was a rowing seat from 1928 and, in one of the building's bays, a shell that had raced in the 1932 Olympics.

There were a few old framed black and white photos left on the walls.

"This boy here is Chet Gibson, he rowed at Cal," Archer said, pointing to a picture of one of his old Poly crews. "He was picked by Life magazine as the most perfect specimen of man. For physical and muscle development you can't beat this (sport)."

They Plan to Travel

Archer, who retired so that he and Astrid can travel, said that what he will miss most are the young rowers.

"If I didn't kick somebody in the butt for doing something wrong my day was spoiled," he said, picking up discarded orange peelings. "Someone would drop a boat or run into a buoy, and then I'd have to repair it."

Van Blom said that mock anger was part of what made Archer such a lovable character.

"He was a little bit cantankerous," Van Blom said. "He had no qualms about chewing somebody out."

Archer also will miss the precious Sundays when, away from the busyness of regattas and the coming and going of sweaty oarsmen, he would seclude himself in the boathouse and varnish the brown wood shells.

He would become, he said, "an artist working on a picture," and would bask in an aroma he found as intoxicating as the sea's.

Lives in Belmont Heights

Last Sunday, with no shells to varnish, Archer was at his Belmont Heights home. There was an urge to go to the boathouse, but he said it was not irresistible.

While Astrid listened to Brahms symphonies, he rummaged through some memories.

"Here's the whole family rowing," he said, displaying a long-ago photo of him and Astrid and their four children who now range in age from 39 to 47.

Astrid looked at the little man she calls "honey," at the fishing hat that covered a head that has been bald since both can remember, at his knee-length shorts and bare chest and the way he zipped around despite his hips.

After all the years, and now, even in retirement, she knew he was still the same.

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