Reggie Jones Sr., Jones Beach's longest-serving lifeguard who served for 64 years, died Jan. 30 at age 93 in Rockville Centre.
Jones, a World War II veteran and a Garden City teacher and coach for 35 years, worked every summer at Jones Beach from 1944 to 2008, until he was 80 years old.
He passed a running and swimming test every year. But when he was 81, he missed the cut for lifeguards by 2.91 seconds. He still holds the record for the longest-serving lifeguard at Jones Beach.
"He never complained and just knew those were the parameters," said his son Reggie Jones Jr., of Point Lookout. "He loved the physical aspect of being outside and the exercise. And he loved the social aspects of being around people. He talked to strangers on the beach and was a social ambassador for Jones Beach."
Jones was born in Manhattan in 1927 and grew up in Baldwin. He played football and won a Long Island wrestling championship in 1944.
Jones served in the Navy during World War II and went on to get his degree in education form Cortland State Teachers College. He taught at the Floral Park Bellerose School before he got his master’s and taught social studies for 32 years at Garden City Junior High. He also coached the school’s wrestling team for 11 years, going undefeated for a decade.
He was also a high school and collegiate wrestling official for more than 50 years and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997.
Jones went to work at Jones Beach to escape working for his father’s gas station on Merrick Road in Baldwin, his son said. In a video by Jones Beach lifeguards, Jones Sr. recalled that when he took the job, "I said, Valhalla, I have arrived."
He continued to work every summer while working as a teacher. Two of his sons followed his footsteps to serve as lifeguards as well.
"He thought he had won the Olympics and it changed his life," said Jones Jr., 70, who is assistant chief at Point Lookout.
Jones was by all accounts "a character," friends and family said. He was known as a jokester who loved to tell stories and make those around him laugh.
"Reggie was one of the funniest people you’d ever want to listen to," said Lee Hahn, a lifeguard of more than 50 years. "He would tell stories over and over again. I thought the delivery was so good and I had to laugh a fourth or fifth time. He keeps the stories going, one after another."
Even into his 80s, Jones would run and swim laps in the ocean every day and during bad weather. During the long downtime on the beach, Jones would draw on a captive audience of those around him to tell stories or jokes. He held a contraband radio, shaped like an orange with a straw, that he pretended to sip on the lifeguard stand.
He called being a lifeguard the greatest job he ever had.
"You have to love the physical spot, the beach itself and the camaraderie of the people you’re with," Hahn said. "You think you may have saved someone’s life and you feel like you’re doing something important."
Jones made numerous lifesaving rescues, including one in the fog where he heard someone screaming and lost his buoy in the surf and carried a man back to safety, his son said.
"He never really embellished or made it more important than it was," Jones Jr. said. "He thought he was doing his job. He wasn’t a showoff in that respect and wasn’t searching for hero worship."
Jones is also survived by his son Gavin Jones from Oceanside and two granddaughters.
He was preceded in death by his wife of 57 years, Bette Gallackher, and his son Kevin Jones.
Family members are planning a memorial and celebration of life at the beach this summer.