By Steve Craig
Hampton Union, Tuesday, June 24, 2003
It started as a natural summer job for a strong-swimming beach kid. Jim Donahue was an up-and-coming athlete with a zest for physical challenges. He'd been coming to Hampton Beach every summer since he was six months old.
Be a lifeguard? A perfect fit.
Forty-four summers later, Donahue is still here. Oh, he may not man a guard tower on a regular shift anymore. Not that he couldn't. He may be "59 and a half," as he puts it, and about to retire as a science teacher at Whittier Tech in Haverhill, Mass., but there's no question this is still a guy who's fit and ready for action. In heart, soul and attitude, he's still the 16-year-old kid who was hired right away as a guard because of his knowledge of the beach and his swimming ability; the 20-year-old football player who set records for punt and kick returns at Boston University, and the 30-year-old who pushed himself to always be the best swimmer, the fittest of all guards, when each new crop arrived at the soft, white sands that attract thousands of vacationers, most of whom are utterly ignorant of just how dangerous the surf can be.
"I love it," Donahue says, when asked why a man his age keeps coming back to something that most folks think of as a college kid's job. "As a teacher, it always was a perfect fit. I'm serving a purpose: protecting people's lives. You're outside."
So, when it's time to do a visual check on his working staff, he often runs the five miles up and down the stretch of beaches under his domain. Twenty-five guard stations are set up, starting with lonely station No. 1 at Seabrook Beach to the far south, over the 1.35-mile main strip of Hampton Beach, down North Beach and Plaice Cove, and finally to the last stops at North Hampton State Park.
Along the way, he'll encounter men and women who share his opinion that serving the public in a spotlight job has enough perks to compensate for the modest pay (beginning full-time guards earn $9.01 an hour as state of New Hampshire employees. A head lifeguard makes $11.75 an hour). Each becomes like a family member over the course of a summer - or summers. Some started as family.
On any given day, it's quite likely that three Donahues will be wearing the distinctive bright orange color. Working for Jim are his sons Michael, 22, and Kevin, 19, a pair of Winnacunnet High School grads who, like their father and uncles before them, have transferred a lifelong attachment to this beach into summer occupation.
"I always wanted to be a lifeguard growing up," says Michael. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) this spring with a degree in communications. For the third straight summer, he's splitting his work time between being a part-time policeman for the Hampton force and life-guarding.
Kevin works full-time for Harvey Industries in Portsmouth, making windows and doors. He has the distinction of being the youngest person ever hired as a lifeguard at Hampton Beach, getting the job when he was 15.
"I'd always thought you had to be 16," says Jim, who notes that he prefers his guards to be at least 18. "That summer, we were really short-staffed, I talked to my boss, and he said, as long as he's certified, go ahead."
The elder Donahue says he never has had any qualms about his sons being guards, nor has their mother Joan Donahue, a long-time art teacher in the Hampton schools, despite the omnipresent element of danger to the job.
"Naw, not really. I'm actually very proud of them," he says. "They know the beach. They're all excellent swimmers. They love the job."
Kevin says having his dad as the boss does not add any extra pressure. The pressure comes from the job. When a passing storm has churned the waves to over eight feet, any rescue attempt is dangerous. On such days, it is not uncommon for the entire crew to have to make more than 25 saves in a day. That's why all the Donahues agree that the best beach day is a flat ocean day.
"When the waves are high and you're on alert the whole day, it's tense. You get tired just from being on the lookout so much," he says.
The sons have brought the Hampton Beach lifeguard staff back to a more normal Donahue quota. More often than not, Jim has shared his avocation with family members.
Kevin Donahue, who lives in Kittery, Maine, was on the staff from 1963 - the last year the guards were town employees - until the early 1970s. Brian Donahue came on in 1965 and was on the staff until the late 1970s. Keith Donahue started in 1975 and worked through the early 1980s. Each eventually left because their full-time jobs did not allow for summer employment sitting in an observation tower, acting as the raised hub in a salt-air swirl of sand, surf and flesh.
"I think of the three of them, Brian's the one who wishes he could still be a part of it," says Jim.
"And Uncle Kevin said he wishes he could," Michael adds.
Then there's Leland Brennan, of Hampton, who started in 1965. He's not related to the Donahues, but he might as well be, as his nickname "Uncle" suggests. Currently the guards' administrative lieutenant, Brennan has been on the beach every year since except for a three-year hitch with the U.S. military in Vietnam and one summer when he was laid-up after he was struck by a tractor-trailer while fixing his car on I-495.
"When I came on, Jimmy and Kevin were guards. I came on the same year as Brian. Then, it was a lot of fun watching the two sons grow up," says Brennan, who is dean of students at Whittier Tech. "They had their little lifeguard shorts, and we would just let them bird-dog us on the beach."
Like the elder Donahue, Brennan says being a lifeguard - like teaching - is a job that keeps him young. "Every summer, it becomes a very close-knit group very quickly. It comes from everyone depending on each other."
It's Father's Day, 2003, and this is where Donahue wants to be. He's in the guard station a couple of floors above the sand, located behind the clamshell bandstand. In two days, he will finish his 38th and final year of teaching when he retires as a science teacher at Whittier Tech. He has no intention of quitting as chief of guards any time soon.
"No way. I want to make a couple more years," he says.
Why should he quit? He's standing next to his best friend, Brennan, the sun is shining, and below him are his boys. Another summer of surprises awaits, just like but uniquely different from the 43 before them.