The King of Chair Five

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It was a warm July night when my girlfriend and I crested the dune that led down to lifeguard chair 5 at Jennings Beach. In front of the chair was a beautifully prepared dinner table complete with silver candelabra, china and champagne glasses. Our waiter (and chef and set designer) greeted us with appetizers and a four-course dinner he’d prepared on the spot, his eyes beaming behind his bow tie and tuxedo T-shirt. I could think of no better place to propose to my future wife, nor a better man with which to share the moment.

FI-Robert-WalshNorman Hildes-Heim was as much a part of Jennings Beach as the sand and salt water by the time I was sent to join him on Chair Five. I’d heard stories about this peculiar man who served proper English tea at 3:30 every afternoon; he was already 25 years into a lifeguarding career that would span more than 50. I felt I better be on my best behavior around this mythical figure. So I was.

When I asked what he did for a living, he answered as if offended: “I’m a lifeguard, of course!”

And he was.

He was also the son of a German opera singer and a pioneer helicopter pilot who made the ball bearings that helped America win World War II.

He was also an alumnus of Columbia University, continuing his studies at Harvard and Cambridge.

He was also the author of a musical that premiered in front of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. He was also the coach of some of the best Ivy League crew teams in the country.

He was also The New York Times correspondent that single-handedly kept rowing in the sports section of the Old Grey Lady.

He was also the principal partner in an architecture firm.

He was also a professor at Columbia University and the University of British Columbia.

He was also a real estate mogul and avid collector of Packards.

First and foremost, however, he was a lifeguard.

He’d learned to swim at Jennings Beach and became a lifeguard there at 18. Through the years, his life took on a Zelig-like quality: Sharing a limo ride with Ringo Starr at the height of Beatlemania, rooming with Bart Giamatti at Andover and Brian Dennehy at Columbia, watching as students seized control of Columbia University administration buildings during Vietnam War protests, and fleeing Iran — and the plans for a hotel the Shah had arranged — just as the government collapsed. Yet none of these stories were told with the same passion with which he spoke of former lifeguards at Jennings Beach. Not a day went by without a visit from former chair mates and their growing families; he was godfather to more children than the entire Corleone family.

As the many lifeguards who’ve joined Norman on “Club Five” through the years can attest, Norman’s love of that small stretch of beach was beyond description. As such, his expectations were high: The privilege of sitting on that chair demanded we conduct ourselves with a level of decorum not normally associated with summer lifeguards. The beach became his classroom as he taught us everything from the best way to buy stocks to the poetry of Mark Van Doren. Woe to anyone foolish enough to cast aspersions on Cole Porter or abuse the English language within his earshot.

Rookie lifeguards soon learned that Norman was exceedingly generous. He was the first to offer help when a letter of recommendation was needed; the first to plan the party for important events; the first to give solace in a time of need; the first with sage advice when it was sought. He had a gift for saying the right thing at the right time, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who managed to say things better.

Fairfield owes a great debt to this man who served as a sounding board for so many of its youth in their formative years. Just ask the generations of doctors, lawyers, business leaders and teachers who worked with him on that beach. As we grow older, Chair Five alums continue to pass on his love of occasion and tradition in an effort to make our worlds as interesting as his.

On March 20, Fairfield lost a legendary figure that helped make this town such a unique, vibrant place in which to live. We’ve lost a great laugher, a passionate singer of show tunes, a master sweeper of leaves and construction zones. We’ve lost a father figure, a mentor, a faithful parishioner and a true friend. I wish I had the words to do him justice, but instead I’ll have you ask around — I’m sure you’ll hear much better from the countless others whose lives he touched.

Oh, and he was one hell of a lifeguard.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him a [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh

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