On Guard

Those who knew Dwight Crum in the final years of his life remember him in much the same way as those who knew him as a rookie LA County lifeguard.

Those who knew Dwight Crum in the final years of his life remember him in much the same way as those who knew him as a rookie LA County lifeguard.

He was an amazing swimmer, averaging two miles, three days a week until he suffered a stroke at the age of 76, and a brave individual who made countless rescues, including many after retirement. Most of all, he loved the South Bay.

Crum is a legend around the local beaches, and today his legacy lives on through his family, friends and the pier-to-pier swim that bears his name at the annual International Surf Festival, held this year July 30 through August 1. Crum was one of the founders of the festival back in 1962. He was also a participant in its events and served as the chairman for 16 years. Today his son, Gary Crum, a retired LA County lifeguard who followed in his footsteps, is the festival’s chairman.

The festival, presented by Ford, the chambers of commerce of Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Torrance, and the LA County Department of Beaches and Harbors, is a three-day event that includes a two-mile beach run, a soccer challenge, a volleyball tournament, youth swims and paddles, and more. While some events are just for the public to participate and enjoy, others are meant to be educational. The LA County lifeguards demonstrate rescues and showcase their strengths in a medley relay that includes swimming, paddling and dory racing.

In 1980, the two-mile swim from Hermosa to Manhattan was renamed the Dwight Crum Pier-To-Pier Swim. Every year, the Crum family has a tradition that the race begins with a shot from a pistol and the drop of Crum’s straw hat. (When he competed, Crum always started the race wearing his hat and threw it down before getting in the water). The swim is a difficult one, and participants must qualify in advance to participate. In the early years of the festival, no more than 200 people would attempt the feat, but in 2009, as many as 1,100 entered and 1,000 completed the swim in the allotted two-hour time period. Ages of participants range from as young as 11 years old up to people in their 70s.

Crum was awarded the Lifetime Achievement award at the 1994 Surf Festival for his contributions to lifesaving, noting his service from the early 1960s as captain presiding over more 1,000 rescues. But his journey began back in 1941 as a part-time guard.

Lifeguarding may not have seemed a natural step for a boy raised in Compton. A strong swimmer, Crum swam competitively during his years at the University of Southern California, holding the 440-yard record at the time, and he played water polo for the school. When World War II began, Crum enrolled in the Navy officer program and served on a minesweeping vessel in the South Pacific as a lieutenant junior grade.

After he returned from war, Crum, though holding a business degree, chose to become a full-time guard. He got married and soon moved to Redondo Beach, where his wife Ginny still lives today.

He loved his work.

At one point Crum was offered the position of aquatics director for LA County in charge of all the beaches, but nothing could pull the man from his passion.

Beyond making countless rescues, Crum rose quickly in the ranks, serving as a lieutenant for a few years and then captain of the South Bay — which at the time spread from Torrance to El Segundo — for 16 years. Before retirement, he served as deputy director and assistant director. Not one to delegate, Crum preferred to be an active participant in guarding. “As he advanced, he never lost his love of the front line rescues,” said Gary Crum.

Dwight Crum is also responsible for helping to build the status that lifeguarding holds today. Once thought of as a job for beach boys, guarding is now a full-time career for many, especially in Southern California, and attracts college-educated, serious professionals. For this, Crum became a well-respected hero not only in the South Bay, but also among lifeguards up and down the coast. When Crum passed away in 2000, guards from all over attended the scattering of his ashes from a boat by Avenue C in Redondo, where he and his family lived a large part of their lives.

There have been a few changes in the LA County lifeguards since Crum’s time. For one, local guards have merged forces with the LA County Fire Department. Gary Crum said this collaborative h as only helped to move the profession to a new status — both lines of work now associated with a certain level of medical and physical responsibility. In addition, today’s guards have more modern medical and communication equipment and computers. However, one thing has not changed since Crum’s era — the level of swimming ability required. And the mission, to rescue and serve, has not dwindled. The LA County lifeguards continue to work long hours and make around 10,000 rescues a year. Through their heroism, Crum’s legacy lives on.