Life Affirming: Lee Atlas Brings Former MDC Pool Lifeguards Together for a Reunion

Lee Atlas was an excellent left-handed, power-hitting, first baseman for Chelsea High School and and the Pony League Twins. He was also a very good basketball player. He was admired by his teammates, classmates, and friends.

But if you ask the tall and talented Lee Atlas what his favorite activity back then was, he’d tell you it was swimming at the MDC Pool in Chelsea.

Growing up in the Carter Street neighborhood in the 1960s, Lee developed a strong connection to the nearby pool situated next door to Chelsea Memorial Stadium where the pool still stands. Lee would spend summer days swimming in the pool with other Chelsea kids and he would ultimately realize his dream of becoming a lifeguard at the pool. Surely, it was Lee’s noble way of giving back and ensuring that Chelsea youths could enjoy the pool as a fun, summertime recreational spot as much as he did as a kid.

Lee Atlas has great memories of those carefree days of summer, and he recently organized a reunion of former lifeguards who traveled to Chelsea to share their recollections from 50 years ago. True to his generous nature, Lee hosted a cookout at his home to celebrate the momentous occasion and that special time in their lives.

Following are the thoughts of the former MDC Pool lifeguards who attended the reunion:

Lee Atlas

As a young swimmer at the new Chelsea Pool around 1968, I used to spend almost all my summer days there.  I was so very excited to hang out with the lifeguards and aspired to become one someday.  That dream came true in the summer of 1973 when I graduated Chelsea High. Throughout my college career, each summer, I worked at the pool.  

It was during these years that another graduate of 1973 also landed a job at the Chelsea Pool: Eddie J. Herman Jr.  A lifelong friendship was forged in those years, and when he died last fall, I desired to honor him in some special manner, so I commissioned an artist to do a painting of the pool (see attachment). One of the former lifeguards (Steve Fritz) had photos of the original structure that the artist was able to use to complete the painting.  This was a catalyst to a bunch of calls, internet searches and communications that led to the reunion of August 20 – some 50 years after we worked together at the Chelsea Pool. 

It was an added blessing to be able to visit the pool and receive a tour from Jemel Robinson, the Aquatics Supervisor of the DCR.  He showered the former guards — now about 70 years old! — with lifeguard caps, sunglasses and towels.  The memories forged a half century ago are still strong among this small community who hope to meet again in the not-too-distant future.

John French

I grew up in Malden and worked at the Chelsea Pool starting when it opened in 1969. I was taken off [lifeguard duty] at Winthrop Beach and came to Chelsea and worked here for about four years.

I remember the other lifeguards – Lee [Atlas] is certainly one of them, and of course, others over time.

I started working as a lifeguard when I was 16 years old. I went on to college at Salem State. I was a teacher in Danvers and then became a pastor of a church in Stoneham for 36 years.

It’s terrific, it’s great to come back to Chelsea and see everybody and see that they’re [Department of Recreation and Conservation] still serving the community.

Mr. French was accompanied by wife, Janet (Lindsay), at the reunion. Janet has some connections with Chelsea as well. Her parents were part of a Pentecostal church in Chelsea. The church is no longer here, but then it became Parkway Assembly of God in Revere.

Karen Breda

(Karen Breda is the daughter of legendary local photographer, Leo Breda, and Josephine “Jo” (DeAngelis) Breda).

I’m a Chelsea girl, born and raised on Warren Avenue. I started working at the pool in 1969 and I was the first female lifeguard in Chelsea. A second female lifeguard (Debbie Popkin) came to work here that year, and the following year Monica (DiGenio) and others started here.

They didn’t have lifeguard certification at the time, but I was a WSI instructor through the Red Cross. We taught swimming in the morning to the kids. The pool opened earlier, and it closed later. We covered it seven days a week. It was probably the best job I ever had.”

[Today] I am a professor of nursing at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut and I love that job as well. I attended Boston University and then the University of Connecticut.

For high school, I went to Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Brighton, an all-girls school. I also attended Our Lady of Assumption parochial school in Chelsea.

Monica Digenio

I grew up in East Boston and attended Girls Latin in Dorchester. From there I went to Syracuse University. I got my doctorate through Northeastern University.

 I became a lifeguard in 1970. I used to ride my bike from East Boston to the MDC Pool and I worked here for two years (1970-71).

Then I worked for Camp Joy (a program for physically challenged youths) out of East Boston Stadium and I taught swimming.

In my last year as a lifeguard, I was at the North End MDC Pool.

I loved swimming when I was growing up, and I still enjoy the water. It was a fun job working in Chelsea, the best. Look at us, we’re [the former Chelsea lifeguards] all still connected, even after all this time. And that says a lot. The pool looks gorgeous today, almost like a resort. It’s wonderful to have a facility like this in Chelsea.

And I want to thank Lee for putting this reunion together.

James “Jimmy” Collins

I graduated from BC High in 1968. I was a lifeguard at the Chelsea MDC Pool for two years, 1969 and 1970. In between the two years, I went into the Coast Guard Reserve. I started boot camp on Labor Day in 1969 and finished in May. I came back to Chelsea for another year.

I remember the Chelsea kids very well. I made a lot of friends. Two of my sisters (Eileen and Anne Marie) attended Saint Rose School.

I’ve reconnected with another lifeguard Steve Fritz, who was from Shirley Avenue in Revere. We used to train together years ago, and this idea for a reunion snowballed after the last couple of years, and here we are.

I went to Boston State College and got my degree in regional and urban studies. I played football and lacrosse at Boston State and was president of the student government. (He was inducted into the UMass/Boston Hall of Fame in 2012).

 Interestingly, Jimmy Collins served as state representative for Charlestown for one term (1977-78). He had won a special election to succeed Dennis Kearney, who was appointed Sheriff of Suffolk Country. “And then I was forced to run against Richie Voke, who was the state representative from Chelsea,” said Collins. “We had the highest-voting district in the Commonwealth that year. I lost to Richie Voke by about 800 votes, but I had the third-highest vote in the state.

“I moved to South Boston in 1980. We got married [Mary McCarthy] in 1980 and we’ve been there ever since.”

Jimmy and Mary Collins are the parents of well-known state senator, Nick Collins. “He invited me to the Saint Patrick’s Day Breakfast, imagine that?”

Jimmy and Mary Collins have six children and seven grandchildren.

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