Del Mar's first lifeguard captain dies at 76

Staff Writer

DEL MAR ---- Gardner Stevens, Del Mar's first lifeguard captain, who built the city's lifeguard headquarters with his own hands, hired the region's first female ocean lifeguard and launched a groundbreaking junior lifeguard program, died Sunday at his Valley Center home. He was 76.

Stevens died of emphysema in the company of his four children and Margaret, his wife of 53 years, whom he met while lifeguarding at a beach in Venice.

Stevens' brother, Walter Stevens of Fallbrook, said the family will scatter his ashes off the coast of Del Mar, into the waters he protected for 17 years.

Gardner Stevens was hired as Del Mar's first lifeguard captain in 1964, when the fledgling city elected to take over the job of lifeguarding from the county. He remained in the position until retiring in 1981.

One of his first acts in creating the new department was to hire five lifeguards. One of them was Jack Ross.

Stevens "had the best eyes I've ever seen in a lifeguard," Ross said. "He could spot the rescues before they happened."

Del Mar's junior lifeguard program, launched by Stevens in the late 1960s, was the first in the region, Ross recalled. Stevens helped support it by selling popcorn from the lifeguard tower.

His safety announcements through the public address system concluded with a plug for "delicious, hot-buttered popcorn."

But the program's goal was serious, Ross said.

"It was part of an effort to integrate the community into the beach and to teach beach safety to kids," Ross said. "They would pass on the information to their parents and their friends."

Stevens also broke new ground in the early 1970s by hiring the 1966-1967 women's world champion surfer, Joyce Hoffman, as the first female ocean lifeguard in the county.

Stevens and former Del Mar Fire Chief Jim Baker built the block building at 17th Street that continues to serve as the city's lifeguard headquarters and community services office.

Stevens also built the public restrooms at 17th Street, and over the years, repainted the salty building and fixed the plumbing.

"He was a sweeper," said lifeguard Sgt. Jim Lischer. "Every single day, that was his first job for the public, to sweep that sand from in front of lifeguard headquarters."

But no matter which of many tasks he was doing, colleagues said Stevens' eyes were always on the water.

Born in Memphis, Tenn. on Jan. 29, 1926, Stevens served as a Navy corpsman during World War II and the Korean War. After leaving the service, Stevens became a licensed chiropractor with schooling made possible by the GI Bill.

Before coming to Del Mar, he worked as a Los Angeles city lifeguard, an ambulance driver for the city of Los Angeles, and as a film editor for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

The medical background was invaluable at the beach, Ross said.

"I saw him relocate a shoulder for someone," Ross said. "He could handle any emergency with a level head."

Stevens was known as a no-nonsense lifeguard captain, who knew how to get the attention of local teen-agers when necessary. If surfers rode waves into the swimming-only zone, he confiscated their boards until the end of the day.

But his gruffness was tempered with much caring. Some employees said Stevens was like a father to them.

"When I needed a mentor, a mature man to talk to, Gardner was always there," said Sgt. Eric Sandy, a Del Mar enforcement officer. "Whether it was girl troubles, money troubles, school troubles, he was always there."

In late January, about 50 people, many of them lifeguards, celebrated Stevens' 76th birthday with him at his home, said his granddaughter Oceanna Gage, 26.

"His love for the ocean and for saving lives has touched every single person in this family," she said.

And they are many.

Stevens is survived by his wife Margaret and four children: Melissa Clark of Encinitas; Melinda Stevens of Germany; Gardner "Boe" Stevens lll, a state lifeguard who lives in Malibu; Meredith Stevens of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and eight grandchildren.

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2/26/02     1997-2002 North County Times