Tommy Hogan found what he loved early in life — the beach — and has never left it


The happy man wakes up every morning feeling worthy of the name.

Let the rest of the world worry itself into a Xanax prescription over debt ceilings and health care. The happy man has a warm blue ocean waiting, nature’s antidote to anxiety.

“Hey, man,” he used to say to the envious cubicle crowd. “It’s work.”

It was and someone had to do it.

Luckily, for 25 years, it was him, presiding over the waves rolling up to the Palm Beach shore. Lucky too, for the more than 100 people who owe him their lives, although the happy man shuns talk of heroics.

“Happy is the man who can make a living by his hobby,” wrote George Bernard Shaw.

Shaw would have approved of Tommy Hogan.

Still in the swim at 78

For more than half a century, life has been a beach for this former Palm Beach lifeguard, current beach champion and forever beach bum.

He sees no reason for it to change just because he’s retired and pushing 80.

Hogan flings a hat and swim goggles in his truck. He tosses a red rescue buoy behind his seat. Old habits die hard.

If there’s a swell, he might latch a surfboard on his customized board racks. On other days, he takes a paddleboard or a contraption called a surf ski, a lightweight ocean kayak, one of his only concessions to his age.

More than 50 years after Hogan, 78, entered his first lifeguard competition, he won six medals in his age group last month at the U.S. Lifesaving Association’s Lifeguard Championships in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

He still represents his former employer, the Town of Palm Beach Ocean Rescue Unit.

“This guy is a legend from coast to coast,” said John Amman, a fellow former Palm Beach lifeguard and longtime friend. “A few years ago, I turned on ESPN one day and there’s Tommy in the frickin’ Ironman in Hawaii.”

“I’m just a happy man,” says Hogan, who seems to have outwitted adulthood. “I found what I love when I was a kid and never did anything else.”

Said Amman, “Tommy’s the world’s oldest 18-year-old.”

‘Did I ever tell ya …’

Hogan likes to talk almost as much as he likes to swim. And he really like to swim.

For fun, he swims a mile, maybe a mile and a half in the ocean. His stories are at least that long.

“Hey, did I ever tell ya …,” he begins and a yarn tumbles out like a tidal surge.

In the “swimming with sharks” category:

He was about a quarter mile out over 80 feet of water when he spotted a 12-foot hammerhead keeping pace below him, shaking its anvil-shaped head from side to side to keep Hogan in view.

“That shark didn’t stop following me until my feet touched sand,” he said.

Another time, he noticed a friend on the beach wildly waving at him. Looking around, Hogan spotted three bull sharks circling him. Bull sharks, he discovered, make excellent swimming coaches. He flew toward the beach.

“Most sharks won’t bother you, but bull sharks will hit you,” he said.

In the 1980s, he was Amman’s training officer for the Palm Beach lifeguard squad. They were swimming over the reef when Amman looked down. He grabbed Hogan’s ankle.

“Sharks. Tommy, there are sharks down there,” Amman recalled yelling.

“Yeah, they live here,” Hogan calmly told him, and resumed swimming.

“This guy, he’s a classic, I’m telling you,” said Amman, who eventually traded his blue lifeguard trunks for a Worth Avenue art dealer’s blue blazer.

Rock stars on the beach

Hogan has spent so much time in salt water that fish have mistaken him for a pelagic pal.

A remora attached itself to his chest one day during a workout and hung on.

“It thought I was a shark, I guess,” he said.

Unable to dislodge the suckerfish, he kept swimming, the confused remora trailing from Hogan’s chest like one of his championship ribbons.

Hogan’s tales veer into each other in conversational collisions, hopscotching back and forth across the decades. A story about meeting John Lennon morphs into one about getting chewed out by Jimmy Buffett’s wife.

This would be the “Famous Rock Stars I Met on the Beach” category.

It was the fall of 1980 and town lifeguards used to jog a mile south of the Midtown beach to the big curve, then swim back.

One day, a man with an English accent and little round glasses was on the beach with his family.

“That’s a long way to swim,” the man said.

The next day, they met again and introduced themselves.

“My name’s John Lennon,” the man said. “I play in a group.”

“Cool, I’m Tommy Hogan, see ya around.”

“None of us knew who he was,” said Hogan. “Finally, someone told me about The Beatles. A few days later, he went back to New York and got shot.”

Surfing with Buffett

It was debatable who was the biggest star on the beach that day.

“Our daughters used to say they couldn’t go anywhere or get away with anything because everyone knew their dad,” said Hogan’s wife, Joyce, a retired nurse.

They’ve been married 52 years, all of them spent in the same house in unincorporated West Palm Beach, decorated with rope-wrapped dock pilings, shells and the sea glass Hogan collected from beaches around the world. They have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.

“When he proposed, he said, ‘Marry me. You’ll never have a dull day.’ He kept his promise,” Joyce said. “He made me laugh and then sometimes I’d want to kill him. And, he talks too much.”

Unperturbed, Hogan has re-loaded.

“Anyway, I was telling Jim he needed a bigger board …”

Jim? Were we talking about someone named Jim?

“Oh, Jim’s a singer I know. Jimmy Buffett. We surfed together when he lived around here.”

Oh, that Jim.

Hogan said Buffett, who had a house just south of Midtown Beach, hired him as a lifeguard for his kids’ pool parties. They became friends.

Hogan has been surfing since the early 1960s, when he helped found the Surf Fossils, perhaps Palm Beach County’s first surfing club. Most of its members are in their 70s today.

Hogan told Buffett his surfing skills required a longer board.

“I talked him into buying a bigger board, then Jim said, ‘Now I’ve got to get a bigger plane for a 9-foot-6-inch board.’ He put his boards in this sea plane he had. His wife, Jane, got mad at me. She said, ‘Tommy, you stop that. He does not need a bigger plane.’ ”

During one of Buffett’s parties, he recalled talking to an interesting man, but told a friend he didn’t get the guy’s name.

“That was Harrison Ford,” the friend told him.

He pauses.

“I sound terrible that I didn’t know who these people were, but I usually met them on the beach. I used to say, ‘I didn’t recognize you with clothes on.’ ”

Snakes on the beach

The truth is that Hogan’s heroes are other lifeguards, not celebrities.

He was just out of high school in 1953 when he landed in Palm Beach; a Chicago lifeguard fleeing cold Lake Michigan waters.

“I just fell in love with the beach here,” Hogan said.

He got a job as a lifeguard at the saltwater Lido Pools at the old Palm Beach Pier complex, which also housed restaurants and a nightclub where everybody in town, everybody who was white, anyway, went to dance.

“Man, this was the Jim Crow South,” he says of those days.

He rented an apartment above the pier, with a view of the ocean, for $5 a week.

In 1960, the Town hired him to guard a remote new beach called Phipps Park, more than 2 miles south of town. No condos had yet sprouted south of Sloan’s Curve. Hogan was the only lifeguard on an empty beach bordered by sea grapes, which were home to an aggressive colony of Eastern diamondback rattlers.

The snakes crawled onto the beach to warm up in the winter.

At first, Hogan didn’t have a phone or a radio in his guard booth. If he needed to call the police or an ambulance, he had to dig up a dime for the concession stand’s pay phone.

He says that’s what he did when buses of black residents arrived one day in the early 1960s in an attempt to desegregate the whites-only beach. They were followed by hood-wearing Ku Klux Klansmen brandishing baseball bats, Hogan said.

“The police came with paddy wagons to take people away,” he recalled.

At Phipps, his job was to save lives, kill the rattlers and try not to expire from boredom. After a fire station was built in the park in 1964, Hogan, the eternal adolescent, began pranking the firefighters.

“I had killed a 4-foot-11-inch snake with 17 rattles. The firemen left a bakery box by the trash. I got the box, put the snake inside with its head held up by a stick, wrapped it up with ribbon and left it on a table inside the station, like a gift. The guy that opened it almost had a heart attack.”

Remembering, Hogan roars like a mischievous kid.

Saving lives was his mission

But Hogan never took his job lightly.

Once, he nearly lost it for taking his duty too seriously.

A depression in the reef just south of Phipps Park boundary sometimes creates a powerful rip current. One day, Hogan left his post to rescue a swimmer being swept out to sea.

“My boss said he’d fire me if I ever did it again. But the next year, I pulled somebody else out of that rip. I couldn’t let those guys drown,” said Hogan.

In 60 years, he figures he’s pulled more than 100 people out of the ocean, some of them close to death.

“Their eyes were already rolled back in their heads when I threw them up on the beach,” he said. “But they revived.”

He remembers only two who didn’t. A little girl and an older man, he thinks. He’s forced himself to forget.

In 1973, he was reassigned to Midtown beach where he spent his days perched at the intersection of Chilean Avenue and South Ocean Boulevard. He grew his blond hair to shoulder length and kept a lit cigar clamped between his teeth, at a time when even lifeguards smoked on the beach.

Five days a week, he sat three steps up on a small lifeguard stand the guards hoisted over the seawall every morning, and lifted back onto the sidewalk every evening. A beach umbrella taped to the stand counted for shade.

“These guys today are guarding in hotels compared to what we had,” he said.

Sunscreen was a swipe of zinc oxide on the nose, if that.

He holds up a blotchy red leg, pocked with waxy white bumps.

“Basal cell cancers,” he says. “They’ve taken off dozens of them. These are new.”

He’s had a melanoma on his chest; a tumor was removed beneath his right eye and another inside his lower left lip.

Now he wears a hat with curtains to protect his neck and a long-sleeved T-shirt, even in the water.

To make ends meet, Hogan worked nights as a valet parker at the Sailfish Club on the north end of Palm Beach, where he met town officials, socialites and movie stars.

For a while, he was friendly with James Kimberly, the earring-wearing, Ferrari-racing grandson of the founder of Kimberly-Clark. Kimberly played a notorious role in the 1982 divorce trial of Roxanne and Peter Pulitzer.

“He introduced me to Lee Marvin and Buddy Ebsen,” said Hogan.

His stories never end

“Hey, did I ever tell ya about …” he begins again.

Once, he pulled out an Irish setter caught in a rip current by putting a circular swim buoy over its head, to ongoing derision from the other guards.

One day, he paddled several miles out to sea to save a young woman on a windsurfer.

“We had a west wind, and she was getting pushed further and further out,” Hogan said.

She was almost to the Gulf Stream when Hogan caught up to her on his rescue board.

“I could only see the very top of The Breakers, we were so far out.”

He hooked on to the windsurfer, laid down and started paddling for shore, pulling them both in against heavy wind.

“It was killing me, but she was just lying on her board crying.”

Hogan ordered her to start paddling.

“I was a little bit tired after that one,” he said.

Around age 40, Hogan got fat. He weighed 220 pounds and didn’t feel well.

“I was drinking a lot, so I quit and started running marathons.”

At his fastest, Hogan ran 26.5 miles in 2 hours, 48 minutes. During one Orange Bowl Marathon, he kept up a 6:30 a mile pace with Joan Benoit for 20 miles before hitting the wall. Benoit went on to win a gold medal in the Olympics in 1984.

Even after he retired in 1985 at age 49, he has continued to represent the Town of Palm Beach in lifeguard contests around the world.

“The town has been really good to me,” he said.

Hogan walks more than he runs on the beach these days. He’s got a bit of arthritis, but his blood pressure is 120/80, with a tiny medication assist.

“My cardiologist said he’d be out of business if half his patients were like me,” Hogan said.

He’s been training the next generation of the beach patrol through Lake Worth’s Junior Lifeguard program.

And every day, the warm blue ocean waits.

Mother Ocean, his friend Jim called it.

“Being in the water is like being baptized, you’re just cleansed. You can forget all about time, all about the world,” says the happy man.

Then he remembers something.

“Hey, did I ever tell ya about …”



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