Podcast: The Incredible Story of a Deaf Lifeguard, Leroy Colombo

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The beach can be a place of peace and relaxation but also a place of danger. Every year, hundreds of lives worldwide are lost due to unexpected accidents or mishaps in the water. Fortunately, there are brave and courageous lifeguards who work hard to ensure the safety of beachgoers. Galveston has a long history of beach safety. One such lifeguard is LeRoy Colombo, who dedicated his life to saving the lives of others. His strong and determined spirit helped keep beachgoers safe and earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records... oh, and did I mention he was deaf?

Born into an Italian-American immigrant family in 1905, this remarkable man profoundly impacted the island's history, culture, and safety. Diagnosed with spinal meningitis at seven, Colombo lost his hearing and the ability to walk.

When Leroy turned ten, he attended the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, where he learned American Sign Language and made other deaf friends that would play an important role for his entire life. Despite the setback of being deaf and disabled, his two brothers, Cinto and Nick, worked tirelessly to restore his physical strength and mobility when he returned to Galveston. They encouraged him to take up swimming. Swimming emerged as an immensely beneficial exercise in rebuilding the strength of his legs. Within a year, he was able to walk again.

Colombo's love of the water led him to join the Surf Toboggan Club in Galveston when he turned 15. Despite his deafness, he was accepted into the club after passing a grueling three-hour swimming test without outside support or flotation. Later that year, Colombo became a lifeguard along the beach. Despite his hearing disability, he proved to be more than capable of the job.

Long-distance open water racing, a popular sport during the 1920s and 1930s, began enticing some of Galveston's best swimmers. Leroy started to compete in these long-distance swimming races. Thousands of tourists and locals lined the beaches to watch these open-water races, which Colombo made look easy.

In 1927, he won first place in the Southern Long Distance Swimming Championship, a 15-mile race in the Gulf. He swam 15 miles across the Gulf of Mexico in only 11 hours. LeRoy Colombo's brother, Cinto, finished the race in second place, three and a half hours behind LeRoy. Muscle cramps and jellyfish stings caused the other four challengers to withdraw from the contest. Colombo's championship was presented to him by the Hollywood Dinner Club, a famous restaurant and nightclub run by the Maceo family.

Leroy became increasingly involved in the Deaf community, meeting and competing with deaf friends in Houston and Dallas, joining deaf clubs such as the Houston chapter of the Fraternal Society of the Deaf, and often visiting Galveston beaches with deaf companions.

Despite his deafness, Colombo proved to be a highly competent and cherished lifeguard. Colombo's swimming skills and determined spirit earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for saving 907 confirmed lives during his 40-year career as a lifeguard, breaking all records at the time; some reports suggest that he saved more than a thousand lives. He was known as a friendly guy with a great sense of humor who was quick to anger whenever anyone left a mess in the public facilities.

Leroy spent over 40 years protecting Galveston's beaches and other local waterways. He is known to have jumped into the ship channel to rescue crewmembers from sinking ships in the harbor.

Leroy had a tough time communicating with beach patrons and locals, as American Sign Language was not as common as it is today and he cherished any visits from his deaf classmates from his childhood. As Leroy aged, he leaned on his childhood friends to support him through health issues and tough times.

In 1974, Colombo passed away at 69, but his legacy lives on. The citizens of Galveston erected a plaque along the seawall in his honor. In 2006, the Texas School for the Deaf unveiled a new swimming center named after LeRoy Colombo. Despite his disability, he became a record-breaking lifeguard and saved hundreds of lives. He was a role model for all, proving that determination and hard work can overcome any obstacle. He was a hero who dedicated his life to saving the lives of others and will always be remembered as a Galveston legend.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."