Irene McDonald

irene 4

Age: 49

From: Oxford Circle; lives in East Falls

First pool experience: Houseman Pool in 1972

Work with the pools: As a lifeguard at Piccoli Pool in the mid-1980s; as a Recreation Department plumber opening and closing the pools in South, Southwest and West Philly from 1995-2000; and as a pool maintenance attendant at O’Connor Pool in 2013

Irene McDonald greets everyone with exuberance. One afternoon this past summer at O’Connor, watching her welcome people at the gate, our rec leader Katie turned to me and commented, “She’s like the hostess of the pool.” And she was, both in how she interacted with everybody there and how she cared for the facility after the rest of us went home at night (like paying for cleaning supplies out of her own pocket because the City-provided ones didn’t really get the bathrooms clean). “For a summer, you get to know names, you get to know kids, you get to know faces,” Irene says. “And that’s important. That’s what we’re made up of in Philadelphia.”

Irene came to work as a pool maintenance attendant (PMA) at O’Connor each day from her other job as a plumber at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are 534,000 plumbers in the United States, and only 1.3% of those are women. Irene’s plumbing career began in the Department of Parks and Recreation. “In 1993 I became a school crossing guard for the City of Philadelphia,” she recalls. “The city had a program, called the TOP/WIN program, Tradeswomen of Purpose/Women in Nontraditional Work. And they had to put a certain amount of women in jobs by about 1995, because in 1975 there was a lawsuit put out by people that women should be in the trades – be an electrician’s helper, plumber’s helper, truck driver, for the Water Department, the Gas Department, the Recreation Department… And you wouldn’t lose your job – if I didn’t like it, I could’ve gone back to being a school crossing guard. They sent out letters to women who would be topped out and never make a larger salary than what they were making back in 1995. It gave women the opportunity to increase their income. So I did that, and I was sent in 1994 to the Recreation Department. I worked as a plumber in the Recreation Department, out on the roads with 12 other plumbers, from 1995 to about the year 2000, where Recreation Department owned Vet Stadium, and I became the first female plumber in the Vet Stadium.”

Irene is a Philadelphian through and through. She learned to swim at the Houseman Pool on Summerdale Avenue in the Northeast, where she was on the swim team from the age of eight. (“I don’t think we would have the childhood memories if we didn’t have these recreations doing these programs. More and more is taken away and taken away… but what we learned!”) Her daughters Stephanie and Shannon learned to swim at Piccoli Pool in Juniata Park; her son Jimmy worked as a PMA one summer too. That being said: “Being a plumber with the Department of Recreation made me realize how big our city was. I did not really understand ‘til the age of 34 – like, all the way out to Finnegan’s Pool [on South 70th Street near Lindbergh Boulevard]. I did not know there was a pool – I didn’t even know our city existed all the way over there,” she laughs.

The plumbers may not be the people you see every day at the pools in the summer, but they’re the ones who make sure the pools open at the beginning of the season and close down at the end. “You work hard to open them,” Irene explains. “Filling them, and making sure of the health and welfare of the community – the water’s clean; there’s no chemical imbalances; there’s nothing that’s going to be harmful; the drains are going to work, the valves, the chlorinator – so much goes into it. Because, you know, this is for the public. So there is a lot of responsibility on the plumbers. They take an oath for the health and welfare of the community.”

When Vet Stadium was torn down in 2002, Irene joined Local 690, the Philadelphia Plumbers Union. She says of her fellow Recreation Department plumbers, all of whom were men, “They knew I could do it. They said, ‘Go, go, go, you can be this; you can do it.’ They really helped me out, mentally. I would’ve never seen that I could’ve gone into 690 and stayed and built the Lincoln Financial. And I still go back, on female-plumber duty for the Eagles games. But those guys, the ones in my head, who were like, ‘Reen, you have no problem doing this,’ are still there, still supporting me and still encouraging me.”

“I’m glad I started with the Recreation Department. It was new to them, to have a woman come in. And you always have one in the crowd, but he taught me a lot, that one in the crowd, kept me going. And no matter where I go, where I work, since he was the first one, I just kind of compare it to him, and I go: If I could get over that one guy, I can get over anytime I come across someone who just can’t understand a woman being a plumber.”

She doesn’t look it, but Irene is a grandmother now, and thinking about what her life will be ten years from now when she retires. “I’d love to spend more time around the Recreation Department, as a retired person doing whatever I can,” she says. “There are so many nice people out there, when you go in and you go to their centers. There’s a lot of good people out there that you just never know about. They’re taking care of their part of the world.”

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