“Bob you know you’re not supposed to smoke in this house!”, Annette said as she walked up and reached out to take his cigarette out of his hand. He pivoted in his chair, crazy blue eyes meeting her concerned look, and ever so slowly blew a cloud of smoke in her face without looking away. He then went back to his work.
I was somewhere between being appalled and choking back laughter as Bob Burnside returned to hammering on his poor laptop while telling me what I was doing wrong as the USLA President. He was worked up- something to do with politics. We had come back from a morning of skiing and were sitting together over some lunch. I almost said something about the smoke assault, but instead took my lead from Annette and let the crusty 86-year-old legend alone. It was probably a little too late to change anyway.
Retired LA County Lifeguard Chief Bob Burnside has passed away at 87. He was a “Lifeguard’s Lifeguard” who was the First President of the National Surf Life Saving Association of America, which later became the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and has been a tireless advocate for lifesaving and drowning prevention among American lifeguards and elsewhere. Because of concerns of the danger of using metal rescue cans, he invented the “Burnside Rescue Can” that many lifeguards use today. Along with legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku, he organized and was part of a team that accepted an invitation in 1956 to attend a surf carnival sponsored by Surf Life Saving Australia. The U.S. team brought rescue buoys, rescue tubes, and Malibu balsa surfboards, which revolutionized surfing in Australia. Many years later the Australians adopted rescue tubes as a primary rescue device.
He was a phenomenal athlete who held world titles in bodysurfing and was a top-level competitor in national lifeguard and downhill skiing events (he skied for the first time upon his retirement at 50). He offered training and support to lifeguards in Mexico, living there for an extended period, and created a fund that continues to support Mexican lifesaving. In 2014 he was awarded the Paragon Award for Aquatic Safety by the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Bob was sharp, witty, inclusive, and no topic was off limits. In our world of lifesaving he was not at all shy about offering advice and suggesting course corrections. But even when he criticized, it was done in such a way that you felt supported.
Most importantly, he was the spiritual leader for many of us in USLA and a tireless advocate for unity and progress. Bob was a personal friend and mentor to me, and I’ll really miss his advice and support. What an incredible life he lived! Full of love and completely without fear. I hope we can continue to follow his example of enjoyment of life, altruism and unification.
Rest in Peace Bob Burnside. You will be missed, but your legacy lives on, as it is woven into the very fabric of so many of our lives.