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What I Do: Tommie G. Tiller

Pool Manager, Downtown Y.M.C.A.

After I retired, a friend suggested I get involved in swimming at the Y. So now I'm teaching kids as well as adults: It's a challenge, but it's terrific when you reach a certain level with someone and help them break past that fear of the water.

I learned to swim in the James River, near where the Annabelle Lee now docks. But the main thing was the Brook pool. It was located on North Side where the main post office is today. When I was a little kid, there was only one pool in Richmond for colored people — that's what we were called them. Colored kids from all parts of the city came to that pool, from 500 to 1,000 every day. It cost only five cents for a kid to swim there and 15 cents for teenagers. The pool was 2 feet deep at the shallow end and 12 feet deep at the deep end. It was gigantic; it would swallow up any pool today. They don't have a city pool today that's built as well or looks as good.

Each summer Thalhimers [department store] would sponsor a two-week swim program at the Brook pool. If you passed the swimming test, you got a $10 gift certificate and a Jantzen bathing suit.

I spent all my summer vacation at the pool. But on Tuesdays I was supposed to stay home and help my mother with chores. I usually snuck out of the house and went back to the pool and boy, I'd get some whippings. Finally my dad persuaded my mother just to let me go.

I was a lifeguard at Brook pool when it was closed in 1959.

At age 12 I'd passed the water safety exam and got my first job lifeguarding. I was ahead of my time. I worked on the black side of Prince Edward State Park — before integration. Later, I became the first black aquatics director in the nation for the Boy Scouts. I also worked with kids at the old Leigh Street YMCA which was located in Jackson Ward near Second Street.

At our downtown Y, the pool is open 102 hours a week. Swimming has a great effect on people, and it does so much for the heart and the lungs. I've had runners and cyclists get in the water and be gasping after only two laps. I want our Y aquatic program to set standards for all Y's. I have a vision and I'm working toward it. — As told to Edwin Slipek Jr., photographed by Stephen Salpukas.

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