Russell Walker blazed a trail in 1965, when he became Los Angeles County's first black lifeguard, and he has been doing it ever since.
"I've been called so many firsts before in my career," said Walker, who recently was promoted to captain and placed in charge of the county Lifeguard Division's Central Section in Santa Monica. "In fact, each time I'm promoted, I am 'the first.' "
The thing is, hardly anyone has followed. Of the 110 permanent (year-round) lifeguards on the county crew, there were just two African-Americans in 1991, the latest year for which figures were available. There were 103 Anglos, two Asians and two Latinos. Two of the 110 were women.
Walker, an Oxnard resident, says he hopes to use the influence of his new position to bring diversity to the ranks of the county lifeguards. In his job, he oversees some of the county's most heavily used beaches and supervises 250 employees.
"My personal goal is to get more minorities and women into our work force and provide programs and activities that would help them develop their swimming skills so that we would have a recruitment pool to choose from," he said in an interview last week in the lifeguard headquarters overlooking Santa Monica beach.
"Looking for potential talent (among minorities) is always an ongoing thing for me," he said. "There are a lot of minorities who are good swimmers and it's an untapped resource."
To that end, Walker helped found a program in 1986 called Water Awareness, Training, Education and Recruitment (WATER) to encourage inner-city youths to pursue ocean-related careers. Stacy Smith, coordinator of the program, which is run by the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, said it serves about 1,000 youths yearly. They participate in a junior lifeguard program, surf camp, sailing and sailboarding classes.
Classes are taught by county lifeguards, and free transportation is provided by a corporate sponsor, Smith said. The program also provides funding for up to 100 scholarships for youths to go through junior lifeguard training.
County officials say the WATER program has helped attract minorities to the temporary lifeguard positions that are filled each summer, and that over time, the permanent staff will be diversified as well.
"We've been very cognizant of the (low numbers of minorities) and have done a very good job of outreach with WATER and have spent a lot of money recruiting," said Eric Bourdon, director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors.
"Essentially, to be a lifeguard, you've got to a competitive swimmer, and we actually have a number of young men and women of color who started out in the WATER program who are temporary lifeguards now," he said. "But largely because of budgetary problems, we don't have that many immediate opportunities to hire permanent lifeguards."
There were no such programs, of course, when Walker was a youth in South-Central Los Angeles. But his sport of choice, he said, was always swimming.
He joined the Marlins, a predominantly black amateur swim team that competed in meets at the 28th Street YMCA, and also swam at Jefferson and Dorsey high schools. And he played water polo while attending Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.
He qualified as a summer lifeguard in 1965 after placing among the top 25 swimmers out 1,000 who tried out. He did a hitch in the Navy, finished college and completed a master's degree in management, but still, he said, he kept coming back to the beach as a lifeguard for the summer.
His decision to make it a year-round career, he said, evolved after he went to a job interview for a management position at Xerox in Santa Ana.
"It was in an office with no windows--smog city--and there were all these guys in suits and the guy interviewing me asked me how I was with stress. I said, 'You want to see stress? Come down to the beach on the weekend and I'll show you stress.' Then I went back to my tower at Zuma. I decided (office work) wasn't for me."
Stress, in fact, is a frequent, if unpredictable, part of the lifeguard's job, he said. An emergency in the water or medical crisis ashore can arise any time. Recently, for example, Walker noted, two lifeguards assisted a homeless woman in delivering a baby on Santa Monica Beach.
Part of being a trailblazer, Walker said, is contending with prejudices and stereotypes.
Reminded of former Dodgers executive Al Campanis' famous 1987 gaffe in which he contended that blacks are not good swimmers because they "don't have buoyancy," Walker said, "We're always going to have people who have that kind of stereotype in mind, and I feel that it is part of my job to educate people like that."
And there are other stereotypes, too, he said--"of lifeguards as beach bums who spend all day picking up babes," for example.
"I try to dispel the myths as expeditiously as possible for all the guys by just doing the best job that I can do. It's an ongoing process."