Rodger Caldwell


Age: 59

From: Strawberry Mansion

First pool experience: Rice Pool (now closed) at 32nd and Ridge in 1968, when his father pushed him into eight feet of water and taught him to swim

Work with the pools: As a lifeguard at 12th and Cambria, Herron, Finnegan, Chew and Murphy Pools since the mid-1970s

Rodger Caldwell likes to share. Smile at him, and stories come tumbling out. Bring him in as a lifeguard – as the City of Philadelphia has, at pools across the city, for nearly 40 years – and he will, as he describes it, “blow the neighborhood wide open.”

Rodger’s been a lifeguard in North and West Philly, but the pool he describes as “his” is Herron, the much-loved circular pool that cooled the community at 2nd and Reed in South Philly until it closed a few years ago. “There was a lot of Afro-American kids, and in the late eighties they were looking at me like this on the fence,” he remembers, holding his hands up to his eyes like goggles, or the openings on a chain-link fence. “Little kids come up, say, ‘Mister, can we come in?’ And I’m saying, ‘Sure, you can come in!’ Everybody kept saying, ‘Rodger, what are you doing, what are you doing?’ So I kept saying to them, ‘Listen guys, this pool is free! I don’t own this, you don’t own this. Don’t nobody own this, man. This is a city pool! These are kids! You don’t want to have kids go home and cry.’ So the little Afro-American kids came in. The Spanish kids came in behind them. Then some Italian kids start coming in. So basically, my pool became, in the late 80s, I would say, one of the first multi-racial pools in South Philly.”

Rodger was born in Virginia and grew up in Strawberry Mansion, where he still lives today. The most athletic of nine brothers and sisters, he played basketball and – when he was 14 – learned to swim from his father, who’d take him to the city pool around the corner after coming home from work. In the mid-1970s, Rodger was a lifeguard at the 12th and Cambria Pool when the City recruited him to become head guard at Herron. “The City of Philadelphia had a meeting downtown at Rizzo Rink, and they said we need one of the best lifeguards you got to come down here and – I guess what they wanted to say was see if he can take back our facilities from the community. The community basically took over. They started putting water inside the pool from the plug, and they was running the pool themselves. All Irish. Irish and Polacks. Wasn’t nobody down there, you know, no color of skin. No Italians, no Chinese – nobody! So they had a meeting with me down there at Rizzo Rink, some of the big shots for the City, and they said, ‘Rodger, we’ve got a special job for you. We wanna know, can you handle it? Can you do it?’”

“So I walked over there – I was a skinny Afro-American guy, real thin. And they looked at me; I looked at them. The kids looked at me; the adults looked at me. The older men and some of the guys on the corner drinking beer, they didn’t like me at all. Boy, they let me have it.”

“So if I went in on a Sunday, and I came in that next day Monday, I started putting up my rules and regulations. And in two weeks time, three weeks time, the kids fell in love with me. Five years old, six, seven, eight, nine, ten – all up to maybe fifteen – they fell in love with me. And once the children fell in love with me, then the parents started liking me. Then the grandfathers started liking me. Then the grandmothers started liking me.”

“When I came back that next season, I put up my rules and regulations again, and I’m starting to see a change. I started my swimming team. I started things for seniors. I started night swimming. See back then, the pools would close at nine o’clock at night. And we had lights that lit up the pool, and it was gorgeous.”

“And you gotta remember now, I’m the only dark guy around. And they took a liking to me. Every two or three days, people was bringing me food. And then the men from the Del Monte ship that was coming in on the port – because the whole area down there, 2nd and Reed, was basically Longshoremen. Everybody worked on the ships, I mean everybody. And they were bringing in oranges, apples, bananas, pineapples, grapes. And they would say to me, ‘Rodg, could you give them out to the community?’ Because the kids in the community loved me. And every day, I used to have people stand in line, and I gave out bananas; I gave out pineapples. And all these little blond haired, blue-eyes kids was loving me like they my children!”

“My swimming team was very, very good. I’m talking about very good. I think when the kids fell in love with me was how strict that I always was. I mean I came down there, put down rules and regulations, and then the kids seen me teach them how to swim. These little kids was going home, getting bathing caps, swimming gear, everything like that. If you mention Rodger Caldwell at 2nd and Reed, they’ll go back and say yeah, he put our children on the map as far as swimming. Because a lot of those kids today, they can swim because of me. And my career stretched for over twenty-some years at that pool.”

Working as a School District bicycle cop from September to June, Rodger has kept his summers free for the pools. He never wanted to leave Herron but did for a month in the mid-1990s, when the City asked him to go meet with the community around the James Finnegan Rec in Southwest and troubleshoot racial tensions that were bubbling over. (He set up a schedule in which there were certain swim times for every age group. Once it was just eight- and nine-year-olds or fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, it seemed whites and Blacks didn’t have a problem swimming together.) Since Herron closed – when a crack in the pool floor started leaking water into the surrounding houses, and the cost of repair was too great (the site is now a sprayground) – Rodger’s served as head lifeguard at South Philly’s Chew and Murphy Pools. He speaks proudly of welcoming new communities into the water at both – Latinos and whites at Chew at 18th and Washington; people of color, and especially Asians, at Murphy at 3rd and Shunk. “I love everybody,” he smiles.

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