For the past 53 years, Long Beach chief lifeguard Paul Gillespie has returned to the beach every summer to help save swimmers, shape young lifeguards and teach beachgoers to love and respect the ocean.
He said this summer was his last. At 71, he is ready to put down his whistle and earplugs and walk away as a lifeguard — but he will always remain at the beach.
Amid the ever-changing, at times unforgiving, waves, Gillespie has been a constant. Since starting in 1969 in Point Lookout, through braving Superstorm Sandy, which destroyed the lifeguard headquarters, Gillespie has been a calming force ushering in new classes of lifeguards each year, totaling about 120 each summer.
He said something felt different this year, as he planned to finish one more summer. But the decision has left him torn and emotionally raw, with the desire to take more time for himself and his family, which means leaving the profession he has loved.
“It’s very difficult,” he said, fighting back tears last week. “This too will come to an end.”
Standing on the beach Saturday, Gillespie said he had planned to walk away quietly after this summer, without any fanfare or tributes. He finished the lifeguard season after Labor Day, then handed in his resignation to the city.
But news of the departure of the man known by many as just “Chief” quickly spread.
“Paul is like a father figure to so many growing up in town,” said Cliff Skudin, a lifeguard for 10 years who helps run Skudin Surf camp. “His legacy will be that he was always able to pull the best out of everybody.”
Gillespie said he will still return to the beach next summer with his wife of 37 years, Jannine, just to enjoy the waves crashing, and to watch fireworks on the beach.
City officials praised Gillespie’s dedication to the beach and teaching legions of lifeguards and swimmers, including his son Paul Jr., who is a lifeguard lieutenant.
“Chief will be sorely missed on the beach and our waters,” Long Beach City Council Vice President Liz Treston said. “The Long Beach lifeguard crews are some of the best in the country under his mentorship and training. This is not goodbye but see you later, Chief!”
A longtime educator
Gillespie also was a teacher for about 30 years, starting with physical education at West Elementary School in Long Beach.
Even after his lifeguarding career is over, he will continue to coach wrestling at Wantagh High School.
He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005 and has been dubbed the Dean of Long Island Wrestling, between coaching in Long Beach, Oceanside and Wantagh. His teams have won more than 500 dual meets and he has coached 12 state champion wrestlers.
Gillespie, an Irish immigrant who grew up in Baldwin, started as a summer lifeguard when he was 18 for the Town of Hempstead. He said he learned from the veteran lifeguards how to save lives on the packed beaches.
He has lived by a motto, “Everyone who comes to the beach has to go home from the beach.”
“We’ve saved a lot of lives,” Gillespie said. “When you do stuff like that, it makes you feel like a hero."
He has surveyed Long Beach’s waters and five miles of beach for nearly 40 years and has seen nearly everything in his career.
“He was a father figure to so many kids in Long Beach that needed it,” said Long Beach Fire Chief Scott Kemins, who started on the beach with Gillespie in 1983. “He’s made a huge impact on the youth of Long Beach over the years. He has a very calming demeanor. He stays calm and keeps everyone else calm.”
'The heroes on the beach'
Gillespie boasts a record of zero drownings for the past 15 years when lifeguards are on duty during the day from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.
But it’s the drownings, usually those swimming after hours, that haunt him, he said. He has helped maintain an emergency rescue crew of six to 10 lifeguards who remain on the boardwalk until dark, ready to respond to emergencies in the water.
“The worst thing we can do as a lifeguard is lose someone,” he said.
Gillespie also led lifeguards through the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which destroyed the boardwalk and the lifeguard headquarters on the beach. Lifeguards operated out of tents after the 2012 storm and then were sheltered in trailers until a new headquarters was built last year.
What chokes up Gillespie most is leaving behind his lifeguard crew, but he knows Long Beach will be in good hands.
“Experience is one of most important things for lifeguards. These guys know every rock on this beach,” he said. “You get a feeling you're going to miss something. I love hearing about the beach. I know everything is all right ’cause those guys are there.”
“As for myself, I'll get over all of this and stop by to see these guys. They're the heroes on the beach,” he said. "I'll finally go to the beach with my wife."