LeRoy Colombo – Famous Deaf Lifeguard

LeRoy Colombo was a famous deaf lifeguard entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for saving 907 lives.

Leroy Colombo

Leroy Colombo

Leroy Colombo Articles by Students

LeRoy Colombo

by Leah Ward (Williamsburg, Virginia, U.S.) | January 4, 2010

LeRoy Colombo was born on December 23, 1905 in Galveston, Texas. He was diagnosed with spinal meningitis when he was seven years old, which caused him to lose his hearing and the use of his legs. His brothers helped him to swim and within the next year he could walk again.

He became a lifeguard and he became a member of the Galveston toboggan surf club in 1923. LeRoy won a lot of swimming races and set a record that was added to the Guinness world book of records, by saving 907 lives.

He was not very appreciated, but that didn’t bother him. When he was sixty two he was forced to quit life guarding because of a heart condition, he still kept his eye out for people in danger and did what he could.

Colombo died July 12th 1974. There is a plaque in Galveston on the beach now honoring him, along with awards and metals in museums.

Best Biography of LeRoy Colombo

Comment by Mark Hurley:

When I was boy, Colombo would come to my great grandparent’s house off 61st street on the north side of Offatts Bayou. He came often to visit my Uncle Robert, who was also deaf and had attended the School for the Deaf in Austin. I never knew Colombo’s first name as my family just referred to him as ‘Colombo’. So, I did as well.

Brother, as we called my Uncle Robert, wasn’t much for swimming. But we knew we could always count on Colombo for a swim in the bayou, because my grandmother, Pearl Hurley, knew we would be safe with him.

Early one morning, when I was around seven years of age, I was fishing off our pier on the bayou, and I jabbed a three-way fishhook in the fleshy fold of my hand between my thumb and forefinger. As usual, I was up with the sun, so it was still very early and my mom was fast asleep. With hook in hand, I tried to gently wake her, but she would not be roused. So, I walked down L Street to 61st where my uncle’s shop – Sunrise Surf Shop, was located, and there stood Brother and Colombo swapping tales. As soon as I showed them my catch, they sprang into action as only two deaf men could – with a good deal of pointing, excited deaf speech, and worrisome, stern looks. My uncle scooped me up, and with Colombo, drove me to St Mary’s. After more pointing and excited deaf speech on the part of my new heros, a doctor extracted the hook – and without any mention of billing, or the taking of names, or anything else that today would have certainly impeded my rescue. Back in the pickup, this groggy patient and my new heros somehow decided it was ‘lunchtime’. So, Brother, Colombo and I drove to one of the beer joints on 61st street. At first I stayed put in the truck, for I knew to stay put in the truck. Then Brother motioned for me to come inside, and he let me sip his beer and eat my fill of peanuts with the grownups, until my mother and grandmother came looking for us. And when they did, what a fuss they made about my being in a beer joint with my two new pals – my rescuers. Usually, we kids were just supposed to play in the back of the pickup, or car, instead of going inside with the grownups. Now don’t get me wrong, we were never neglected. Our good behavior was always rewarded with sips of beer and peanuts when they came out to make sure we were being good. But that day was special, I guess, because I was I newly discharged patient from St. Mary’s Hospital. So on this occasion, just this once, I got to go inside with my pals. Mother was not pleased. She was furious with her brother and with Colombo for letting me come into a beer joint.

For many years after that day, each time I saw Colombo, he would grab my hand, inspect it closely, and then proclaim in his deaf speech, “Good Boy”.
What fond memories of two humble and gentle men.

Comment by Mike Marshall:

LeRoy Columbo was a great American along with being the greatest lifeguard of all time!

I think the city of Galveston should name the entire length and breath of that seawall: LeRoy Columbo Boulevard!

Comment by Patsy Walker:

hi, just want to let you know. Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, Tx has swimming pool named after Leroy Colombo. Try keep in touch with them. Hope your family can see the pool. if you can give your information. i might help you.

i heard of him alot and my dad who is deaf know him my family had picture with him.

Comment by Tamara:

I am just learning about my great grandfather! Most do not know that he had a daughter (my mother) in 1944. In fact, I cannot find it anywhere!!! (I have birth certificate, marriage and divorce certificates) I recently was looking up family online with my son and thought to look up Leroy Colombo, who had died a few yearsbefore I was born. I knew that he was a famous swimmer back in the day, but that’s about it. My mother only saw him once (other than the year he was married to her mother when she was an infant)when she was young, and never tried to find him later in life. I happed upon a biography recently written about him and was in shock. I had no idea how famous he was! I hope that I can somewhow get in contact with some of that side of the family. I am thrilled at finding out more about my grandfather!!!

Comment by Norma Jean:

This was an amazing man and as a youngster he taught me how to swim in the Gulf of Mexico and float like a log. He always said panic drowned people and of course not being a strong swimmer.
I loved to watch him swim and interact with others. He always wore that white international swim suit. He was my hero!!

I was sad when he died because we just don’t have that many real heroes here on Galveston Island.

Happy to see he is appreciated at last and remembered for who and what he represented. I wonder if all those people he saved remember him?

Comment by Mike Clifton:

When I was a little boy, my family usually went to Galveston to swim. We always went to a certain spot on the seawall where LeRoy Colombo located. When he saw us, he always offered us blue/yellow air mattress to use as our life vest. I always amazed at how he swim in the strong current in Gulf of Mexico. He swam as gracefully as a fish. Listened to him telling his rescue stories was amazing. I am glad I got to know him and still remember a deaf lifeguard that I once looked upon as an unsung hero.

Comment by Anonymous:

I remembered Leroy when I lived in Galveston (1958-1972). I had a couple of beers with him a few times. He was a good gentlemen. I could understand some of his sign language.

Comment by Kim H:

I too had heard stories about him. My father had heard of him even though he went to school for the Deaf in Baton Rouge. It is sad though when I went to the visitors center they did not know who I was talking about. I told who he was and that he had a special plaque on the seawall. They still couldn’t find anything on him. Hope fully that has changed as of late. I say we should have a Leroy Colombo day. He is a role model for all Deaf children,life guards in Texas and beyond.

Comment by Susan:

I heard many stories of Leroy from my mother, he was her cousin. I dont think 2 many people appreciate lifegaurds in general, especially deaf 1’s. Thank you Leroy.

Comment by Don Mize:

The 1982 Guinness Book Of World Records has Leroy Colombo listed under Life Saving on page 400 Human Achievements.
It states the following :

Life Saving. In Nov 1974, the City of Galveston, Tex and the Noon Optimist Club unveiled a plaque to the deaf-mute lifeguard Leroy Colombo (1905-74), who saved 907 people from drowning in the waters around Galveston Island from 1917 to his death.

The ISBN number is (ISBN 0-8069-0225-6 Library)
(ISBN 0-8069-0224-8 Trade).

Comment by Jessica Williams:

I have heard from my grandfather stories of Leroy Colombo for years, because he was my grandfather’s uncle. It was bittersweet that he never saw the street sign at the corner of 57th street and Seawall Blvd. My mother told me stories of him from when she was a child, though he no longer was a lifeguard at that time. We still look for a copy of the Guiness World Record book recognizing his achievements.

Comment by Don Mize:

In 2007 I was walking the Seawall in Galveston and noticed the marker the Rotary club in Galveston had put on the Seawall for Leroy. I thought that he would be a great subject for a Texas Historical Marker and someone who needs a street named for him. The Galveston Beach Patrol Association set up a bank account for donations for the Texas Historical Marker and street signage, etc.

People were generous in donating money. During my research. I contacted Russ Colombo who is Leroy’s nephew he said there was a professor named Jean Andrews of Lamar University who was also doing research for a book. Jean and I have enjoyed sharing information. If you go to Galveston check out the Texas Historical Marker (2008) in front of the Convention Center at the Corner of Leroy Colombo’s View (57th street and Seawall Blvd. and his grave marker in Calvary Cemetery on 61st street. I am waiting for Jean’s book to be published before I schedule the marker and street dedication ceremony. I want to be the first one to buy a copy. Jean and I plan to meet in person this Summer.

Comment by Anonymous:

I knew LeRoy from the late 40’s until his death.

People can’t imagine a deaf life guard at the Gulf of Mexico during a time when most families went to the Gulf to swim.

At night, when it was dark and the beach was empty LeRoy would take off his Life Guard Hat and whistle and swim out to the Shrimp Boats (which looked like toys on the horizen) and the Shrimpers would wrap fresh Gulf Shrimp in a plastic bag, LeRoy would swim back with dinner in hand. What a swimmer. I talking the Gulf of Mexico not some lake.

Everyone liked him, he was an extremely nice man.

Comment by Anonymous:

As a lifeguard of many years, thanks for posting this. I was once in Galveston swimming before a big race in the see and saw that sign. As a lifeguard trainer, i was shocked I had never heard about him. I hope the Red cross is giving more credit to him these days.

Leroy Colombo

by Sultana Anjum | July 14, 2017

Meningitis took away Leroy Colombo’s ability to walk as well as hear when he was only seven years old. Although he was never able to hear again Leroy did recover the paralysis of his legs after he took up swimming to strengthen his lower body. In his lifetime he would save over nine hundred lives as a lifeguard in Galveston, Texas. There are a few specific reasons why Leroy’s story made an impression on me. First of all, he remained a deaf lifeguard for a majority of his life in his hometown on the Gulf of Mexico because he loved, more than anything, to swim. He made groundbreaking achievements; completing a fifteen mile swim in eleven hours, swimming through a dislocated arm, and plunging beneath burning oil to save the lives of crew men from a tugboat that burst into flames. Losing two very fundamental day-to-day abilities at the age of seven after recuperating from an illness is a strange, disheartening situation to find yourself in. Everything, including himself, has suddenly taken a foreign shape but right away, on the insistence of his two brothers, Leroy begins to swim and within one year is able to walk again. From this point on he remains a dedicated swimmer his entire life and chooses to stay on the local, popular beaches as a lifeguard among crowds of people, most of which, I imagine, he wasn’t able to communicate with through sign language. None of his lifeguard colleagues or hearing family members learned A.S.L. This is why Leroy Colombo is a favorite of mine; he chose his life despite the circumstances. He chose to swim, to live and work near the water; that was what mattered to him. He let his passion guide a potential to ultimately become a great lifeguard, a potential that many people would see as a shortcoming. Instead of relying on hearing, Leroy focused on visual cues to detect when someone may be in danger. He spent much of his time surrounded by hearing people; he was well known in the community and saved many lives which in itself supports the notion that the Deaf community is equal and is in no way disadvantaged.

Leroy Colombo

by Anonymous (California) | June 3, 2013

While Leroy Colombo was not born deaf, he became deaf at the age of seven and went on to become an amazing lifeguard, who saved a total of 907 lives.

At the time that he became deaf, he also lost the ability to walk. He was told he would never walk again, but with help from his brothers and swim therapy, he did walk again. In 1928 he rescued two crewmen after a tugboat exploded in flames (this required swimming beneath burning oil).

Leroy finished a 10 mile race with one hand in Mississippi River when his shoulder was dislocated after 8 miles, many of the other swimmers dropped out. This is one awesome guy!

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