The Journal Gazette
Thursday, July 15, 2021 1:00 am

June 17, 1966: Swimming lessons go from fear to fun

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Learning to swim is a right of passage for many kids, and not all are happy about it at first.

I remember being terrified during swim lessons when I was little, and there was no way in blazes that I was going to jump in on my own. The instructor must have been out of his mind, right?

Some of the kids in these June 17, 1966, photos from the Gerber-Haus Motor Hotel pool (at the intersection of Parnell Avenue and Coliseum Boulevard) appear to be having the same thoughts, but in the end they all seemed to come around to taking a dip for their swim lessons. A story by Sandy Thorn from The Journal Gazette on June 20, 1966, appears below.

To suggest a date or subject for History Journal, email Corey McMaken at


"Young 'Uns Like Swim Lessons," By Sandy Thorn (June 20, 1966)

Fighting off an apparent urge to cry, the youngster awkwardly emerged from the water. He spurted and sputtered and immediately removed the individual pearly drops of water on his face before triumphantly exclaiming, "I did it! I did it!"

The five-year-old had just mastered the first crucial phase of swimming lessons and, in his world, he was master of the sea. He stood erect as he proudly surveyed his young classmates who would take their turn at putting their faces in the swimming pool

As the youngster wrestled with his slippery, disarrayed hair, he confidently prodded the pigtailed bikini-clad girl beside him, "Go ahead!" As the instructor, Roland Haas, stood beside her and aided her, she managed to submerge all but her pigtails and came up with a smile of satisfaction and achievement.

It was a sunny afternoon at the Gerber-Haus swimming pool as Roland Haas, Steve Beights and John Hendrickson Instructed the young first-day swimming enthusiasts in the art of breathing.

The three to seven-year-olds listened intently and followed instructions on expanding their chests and taking deep breaths: The natural desire of human accomplishment was apparent as the children talked with the instructors and finally attempted the most daring feat of plunging their heads under water.

Some were reluctant, but a brave blond-headed boy shouted, "Watch me!" as he quickly went under. One cute bathing beauty couldn't decide whether to tug at her slipping navy swimsuit or pull her bangs from her eyes as she asserted, "I told you I could do it!" Her broad grin echoed her pride.

Haas, a professor at Concordia Senior College during the school year, said he finds it interesting to work with the little ones because, "You just never know what they're going to say or do."

He said that although all of the youngsters are excited about the new sensation, he is usually faced with a twofold problem the greatest of which is fear.

"The kids have little fears that sometimes show themselves in various ways. Some kids have an itch; others act like they have hair in their mouth and others complain they are cold."

Haas urges parents of those with fear to put their youngsters (particularly the three- and four-year-olds) in wading pools or bathtubs and allow them time to adapt to the water. Haas said three-year-olds present a problem as they are practically unable to communicate. "You can't just tell them to hold their breath, So you have to make them hold their breath by reflex action of pouring a little water over their heads." If any youngster becomes hysterical or is frightened above the norm, it is suggested they wait an additional year for lessons.

Haas, the father of four – including a two-year-old who is learning to swim, laughed as he said, "These kids are great. You suggest something to them and they come back with a counter suggestion! Many times they have all kinds of reasons why they shouldn't get their faces wet."

For some, the 30-minute session seems as long as a lifetime; but others regret leaving the pool until the next lesson. A six-year-old, whose name is Dougie, complained to his mother about leaving the water. The mother seemed amused as she commented, “It's hard to believe he's the same one who dislikes baths!"

Individual attention is a major matter in teaching swimming according to Haas and James O. Conrad, YMCA membership and public relations executive.

Conrad, who has taught all ages to swim, believes that learning to swim is 95 percent mental; three percent confidence in the instructor and two percent| guts. "It's easy for a child to place confidence in an older person, but an older person – say a 26-year-old – will question many things," Conrad added.

Many children, according to Conrad, experience shock when they can see the bottom of the pool: while others who have been around a lake are amazed that they can stand up without sinking into sand.

The YMCA staff member, who has taught countless persons to put their faces underwater, blow bubbles, bend from the waist and breathe correctly, said many problems stem from the fact that parents say, "Johnny, do you want to learn to swim?" Johnny answers "yes," not knowing that he will have to put his face in the water, face strangers and be surrounded by noise.

"This usually is the cause of epidemics," Conrad said. "The child usually comes down with a tummy ache as he prepares to go to his lesson. Or he has a sore throat or a sore finger ... just about any excuse. When It's too late for the class, the youngster makes a miraculous recovery."

Conrad recommends that the youngster, regardless of his argument -- unless he is, indeed, ill be taken for the lessons.

Swimming instructors also are faced with breaking habits contracted at home, where, for example, a child is taught to bend his knees to kick or where a lifejacket is used.

"The instructor's job is to develop a strong kick and teach the children to keep the knees stiff and kick from the hip and to point the toes," he added. A lifejacket which keeps the child straight up and down is a good lifesaving device, but not an aid to teaching children to swim.

Haas and Conrad agree that the instructors only teach the basic fundamentals, and that the sport itself requires practice, practice, practice.

Judging from the observations at the Gerber-Haus pool, it's best to start with the young. They are willing to try anything. One brown-haired, freckled lad whose shoulders were pink from the overhead sun momentarily watched a teenager dive into the adjacent pool and enviously offered, "Gee, I wanna' try that!"

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