Several weeks ago, Henry Raborn and his family drove from his home in Splendora to the Mason Aquatic Center located in Houston’s Eastside. He hadn’t been to the swimming pool since 1986, and before that, since he worked there as a teenager during World War II.
The 95-year-old father and grandfather took a final visit to the place where he spent his youth, got his first job, and met the love of his life. The family was able to take photos of other lifeguards and workers on duty at the center.
“Dad is 95 years-old, so this will be his last trip. It brought back lots of memories,” his daughter Alison Raborn said.
The elder Raborn, known by his family and friends as “Chick,” worked as a lifeguard for the City of Houston in his teens. He is considered the oldest living former lifeguard to have worked for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.
“The visit was great. He and his daughters were standing outside the perimeter fence talking about the pool, as I was unlocking the facility for the staff,” said, Leroy Maura Jr., HPARD senior superintendent of the Recreation and Wellness division.
“I spoke to them, not knowing who they were or what their interest was. It wasn't until approximately 20 minutes later, one of the guards informed me of the group wanting to speak to me,” Maura explained. “He introduced himself and indicated he use to work at Mason in the ’40s.”
The year was 1943, to be exact. Chick got his first job at the center after his brother Paul (nicknamed Duke) had worked there as a basket boy until he enlisted in the Navy.
“When he went into the service, I took the job. We had younger people working there because of the draft,” Chick said.
Chick eventually became a pool engineer, which entailed keeping the pool and the water clean, cleaning the pool filters, and sweeping the sidewalks.
“There was always a group of kids who wanted to swim in the pool early, so we’d let them if they got out the brooms and swept up the pool area,” he said.
Back then, Chick said he would get up at 6 a.m. to start working. Growing up off Walker Avenue, the pool was close enough for him to walk to work.
There were three four-hour shifts to work, and he also stayed at the pool every night to clean backwash filters, he said.
Military servicemembers assigned to a post in Houston were given free time to use the pool and relax. Chick said the pool would get about 100 servicemembers between 2-6 p.m.
“We had large crowds on Saturdays and Sundays during the war. The military would bus GIs to certain pools. No one had crowds at the beaches and the gas was rationed. The bus drove by the swimming pool and the servicemembers swam for free. We had two MPs there to help watch over them,” he said.
Chick eventually worked his way up to lifeguard. He earned his lifeguard certification from the American Red Cross while he worked at Mason.
“He was very proud of his lifeguard badge. He didn’t lose anyone to drowning or problems on his watch,” Alison Raborn said.
Chick graduated high school in December 1945 instead of spring of 1946 due to being drafted into the Navy. After completing his year and a half enlistment, Chick attended college at Texas A&M and spent his summers working as a lifeguard at the pool.
Then he met Garvis, his future wife.
“She was hanging on the ladder on the deep end. I asked her if she could swim, but I knew she couldn’t, and we started talking,” he said.
Their conversation soon blossomed into romance. Chick and Garvis married in 1951. He found a job working as an engineer for Eastern States Petroleum Corporation’s oil refinery along the Houston Ship Channel.
Even then, he worked at the pool on weekends as a lifeguard part time.
He remembers the funny moments, like the time he and his buddies threw the assistant manager in the pool.
“That was our tradition,” Chick said. “When a man wanted to work there, we would throw them in the pool with their clothes on. I remember the assistant manager said, ‘don’t do it,’ but we did it to him anyway.”
Chick and Garvis were not able to visit the pool center much after they moved to Splendora to raise their family. The last time they went back to the Mason together was 1986.
Garvis died in October 2021. She and Chick had been married for 70 years and had six children.
“It was emotional for him to be there without her,” Alison Raborn said.
It’s all about life connections
When Maura unlocked the facility that morning, little did he realize he and the staff would be getting a history lesson.
“It was a pleasant surprise for me. While I was listening to him, my thoughts immediately became he is the oldest former City of Houston lifeguard I have the pleasure of meeting,” he said.
“I asked if it would be OK for me to mention him in my report for that day. They (his daughters and he) approved and gave me his name and age. It was a brotherhood of sorts for me personally. History has always been important to me.”
As Chick and his family toured the facilities, Maura said the former lifeguard recalled sleeping in the facility as an overnight watchman. “He pointed out the area that was formerly a little room where his cot was set up,” he said.
Maura invited him to take a picture with the current lifeguards.
“He was thrilled and asked if he could get in the lifeguard stand,” he said. “One of his daughters and I said no way. He was OK with that. I invited him to join the lifeguards at their end-of-season celebration. He saw the pool deck and main office area.”
Maura also said Chick talked with two of the lifeguards about being a basket boy.
“They had no knowledge of it. I explained, I too, started in the same position in 1979 at MacGregor Pool. I explained what the position responsibilities were back then. They were amazed,” Maura said.
Maura said the visit emphasized the importance of connections to life.
“Everything we do in life has a very important connection to both our past, present and future. We should always be kind because you never know who people are or the impact you will have on each other,” he said.
“Just imagine for a minute, if the facility had not been there when Mr. Raborn visited the park or the guards or I wouldn't have been receptive of him,” Maura mused. “I could only conclude, there would have been a huge void and possibly he would have a disdain for today's lifeguards.”
“He was only trying to share his story with his daughters. He was very proud of his service to the community — a community in which he was born and reared. I shared with the guards how they made his day by giving him special attention he didn't anticipate getting,” Maura said.
It’s sentiment Chick agrees with.
“The best thing is you got to meet a lot of people, but I kept eyes on the pool,” he said. “I was proud of having the responsibilities that most 16 and 17-year-olds did not have. I had a year-round job. All in all, I enjoyed it.”