OKEECHOBEE — “I pestered him until he gave in and gave me the job,” said Betty Dean Bennett, speaking of Clyde Kaufman, who was in charge of the public pool and the swim team in the 1960s.
Bennett was the first female lifeguard in Okeechobee. Prior to that, lifeguards were all boys from the swim team. “I was probably one of the youngest lifeguards, too, because I think I was about 15.” When Bennett first joined the swim team, they had a coach named Ray, but he was fired a short time later, and Kaufman was hired. “Everyone who grew up in that age will tell you what a wonderful person he was,” said Bennett. “He was a great guy. We loved his wife, too.”
She remembers Skipper Bryant and Paul Stairs being the main lifeguards when she was a teen, but there were opportunities for others to fill in, and she wanted to help. “It’s funny,” she said. “I don’t remember getting paid, but surely we must have been. I can’t imagine Skipper and Paul doing it every day for free.” Bennett’s brothers Jim and Bob Dean did some lifeguard duty along with Phil Berger. The boys all took turns with lifeguard duty.
“We were all on the swim team together,” she explained, “and Clyde Kaufman had the Red Cross course that he gave all of us. Passing that course was difficult. We had to save Clyde Kaufman. He would pretend he was drowning, and we had to haul him over to the side of the pool. That was a lot of weight, let me tell ya. He wasn’t overweight, but we were young, and he was a grown man.”
Back then, the swim team cleaned the building, scrubbed the pool and would do anything else that needed doing, but in exchange they got to swim for free, she said.
While she was a lifeguard, she never had to actually save anyone, but she remembers many times having to get everyone out of the pool because of lightning. “We spent many an afternoon standing under the edge of the building there under the overhang waiting for the storm to pass by, and of course, we were all standing there on the wet ground in puddles of water,” she laughed.
Bennett started working at the hospital after school and on weekends when she was a junior in high school, and that made it difficult to keep up with her swimming. She did fill in during one event, though, when the swim team did not have any swimmers in the 16 and over class. Kaufman talked her into swimming, and despite the fact that she had not been practicing, she still did very well.
Cecilia Womble Miller was younger than Bennett but was also on the swim team. She said when she was a girl, she thought Bennett was an excellent swimmer who could do anything. “She was my hero.”
Bennett is retired now and lives in eastern North Carolina.