Keeping bathers safe was an important enough consideration that nearly from its start the resort city hired “constables of the surf” to watch over them, according to Heather Perez, archivist at the Atlantic City Free Public Library. In 1892, they were organized into the beach patrol.
The pension plan is the product of a 1928 state law sponsored by an Atlantic City Republican legislator named Emerson Richards, who lived in a palatial apartment near the lifeguard headquarters and threw parties, such as an annual Easter eggnog celebration, attended by political wheelers and dealers.
The statute creating the lifeguard pensions hasn’t been changed since 1936, according to state library records. Four percent of pay is deducted to help cover the benefit, which nonetheless needs to be subsidized by city taxpayers.
While many on patrol moved on after stints as high school and college students, others hung on to their positions year after year, particularly teachers who had the summers free, said Democratic state senator Jim Whelan, a former city mayor.
“What we call ‘teach and beach,’” said Whelan, who was also a lifeguard and teacher but fell short of qualifying for the lifeguard pension. “Not a bad life.”
Rush was one of the longer lifers, working the beach for 52 years before, during and after a teaching career in Wilmington, Delaware. After retiring from that job in 1985, he extended the lifeguard season by working the winter months repairing boats and re-splicing rescue ropes.
“It’s a rough ocean,” Rush, who estimates he participated in 1,000 rescues, said. “You go save somebody, it’s a hard job. Just ask someone who was saved to see how important the job is.”
As part of his review, Lavin, the emergency manager installed in January, is looking at whether the benefit is in the community’s best interest, said Bill Nowling, his spokesman. “The city has limited resources and needs to make tough decisions about how it funds programs going forward,” he said.
The system wouldn’t be a burden if the city had managed it properly, said Michael Garry, president of the beach patrol union. He said he’s talking to lawmakers and Lavin on how to cut costs for the city.
“Nobody ever sits there and says, ’why do we need the police. Why do we need fire,’” he said. “We’re a little accustomed to having to justify everything about us."
--With assistance from William Selway in Washington.