BELMAR — Everyone has a story about Howard Rowland, who spent five decades at the head of the borough’s lifeguards.
On Friday, Mr. Rowland’s closest friends, family and students gathered in Belmar to honor his legacy and remember the impact he left, from the thousands of ocean rescues credited to him to teaching a generation of lifeguards to follow in his footsteps.
“As a young Belmar guard I can tell you, when you see the red Jeep pull up on your beach and see Howard walk down to the stand, the hairs on your neck would stand up,” said Harry Harsin, chief lifeguard of the Belmar Beach Patrol and one of three members of the patrol trained by Mr. Rowland who is still serving on the squad. At the dedication ceremony last Friday at the Taylor Pavilion, he spoke to a crowd filled with lifeguards, past and present, family and those who had their own memories of Mr. Rowland.
“He was a modest, gentle man, and a grizzly bear all wrapped in one,” he added. “Anyone who worked for him has the utmost respect.”
On March 28, the borough rededicated its 10th Avenue public-safety pavilion in honor of Mr. Rowland. The borough’s old pavilion, named in Mr. Rowland’s memory, was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and rebuilt. The pavilion has been named the Howard Rowland Public Safety Pavilion.
Also at the event Timothy O’Donnell was recognized for his 60 years of service to the Belmar Beach Patrol.
While the original pavilion was destroyed, Mr. Rowland’s legacy was preserved through the memories of those who interacted with him. Even now, decades after his death, in 1988, stories of the former boss of the Belmar beachfront abound.
Recounting stories of Mr. Rowland, Mr. Harsin said that his former mentor began his lifesaving career early in life, at the age of 12, saving a baby who had fallen into Sunset Lake in Asbury Park. He would go on to join the lifeguard crew in Deal in 1928, developing water safety programs that would teach swimmers up and down the county how to swim and stay safe in the water.
He was a paid fireman and first aid captain in Asbury Park, while also serving as a lifeguard in Belmar, a role he started in 1932.
Of the thousands of saves that Mr. Rowland was a part of, Mr. Harsin said, the most famous came on Sept. 8, 1934, when the S.S. Morro Castle caught fire off Asbury Park, running aground. Mr. Rowland swam out and saved as many victims as he could. Of the 539 passengers on the ship, 135 perished.
As a mentor of lifeguards, Mr. Rowland also wanted to make sure his protégés were prepared.
“You never knew if he was going to sit on the stand with you and tell you stories, quiz you on where the rip currents were or ask you out for a row,” Mr. Harsin said.
Perhaps the most frightening thing he could do to young swimmers was the “dreaded oil rescue.”
“The stories you heard about Howard, oiling up his body and swimming out to the last buoy and waving his arms were true,” Mr. Harsin said, adding that lifeguards would feel a sense of accomplishment after being able to drag Mr. Rowland back to shore after the exercise.
For many long-time Belmar residents, Mr. Rowland was a unique figure in town.
Cecil Lear, a former member of the Belmar lifeguards who had known Mr. Rowland in 1942, at the age of 13, said that the former chief lifeguard was like “our father, our mentor.”
“We all here in this room have a special place for Howard in our hearts and we have great stories to tell,” Mr. Lear said. “He taught us to love the ocean, respect the ocean and never turn your back on it.”
When Mr. Rowland was on the beachfront, he commanded the utmost respect from not only lifeguards, but swimmers as well.
“When I was a kid, I remember when we were in the water there were two people I was always afraid of: one was Howard Rowland, because when he came down that beach he didn’t need a whistle; he would just hold his arms and look at you and you knew you better get out of the water. The other was my mother,” Mayor Mark Walsifer joked at the dedication ceremony.
The Belmar lifeguards compiled a scrapbook of pictures, which were given to Mr. Rowland’s family.
Rebekah Spedaliere, the great-grand niece of Mr. Rowland accepted the gift on behalf of the family. She said that Mr. Rowland “is my hero” and the family has saved news articles of Mr. Rowland’s rescues over the years.
To cap off the dedication, artist Suzanne Anan unveiled a portrait of Mr. Rowland in honor of the dedication and gifted it to the borough. The portrait captures Mr. Rowland at the end of his career, red swim trunks and red Jeep, ready to go on patrol up and down Ocean Avenue.
This is an excerpt of the print article. For more on this story, read The Coast Star—on newsstands Thursday or online in our e-Edition.
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