by Janelle Krug
photography by Beatriz Mendoza
It’s a hot summer day; the sun is beating down on your neck and back, setting them aflame, sending your mind reeling for a place to cool down. A swimming pool. That’s it. You’ll cool yourself in the depths of any one of the ubiquitous spots of blue so prevalent in Southern California backyards. But you suddenly realize, amidst the blinding fury of your scorching skin, that you have no idea how to swim.
Enter “Grandma” Louise Townsend. Recently honored at the L.A. County Fair as La Verne’s Person of the Year, Louise has been teaching swimming lessons from her home for more than 45 years.
Her dedication that began so long ago actually started philanthropically, out of a sense of community. After seeing story after story in the paper about children drowning, she decided to take action and teach children how to swim. “I got all I could get a hold of and encouraged them to come,” she says.
Then, in 1964, Louise and her family added a pool to their Old Town La Verne home. It took two years to complete, and they had their kids’ help. “With pick and shovel, we dug that pool,” Louise recalls.
Taking up the majority of Louise’s backyard, the pool goes from two feet to 10 feet deep and is 42 feet by 32 feet. Sabrina, a mermaid crafted by her two children, Barbara and Larry, out of crushed ceramics, adorns the center of the pool.
After the pool was built, before teaching, Louise first had to become certified in first aid. So she went to Pomona Valley Hospital and took a class through the Red Cross, which is still taught today. She first taught her children how to swim. She then spread out, teaching her children’s friends how to swim. Eventually, Louise’s pool was full of kids that wanted to learn how to swim. “Everybody was invited who wanted to come,” Louise says. Without asking for anything in return, she eagerly taught them all. “Kids learn real fast. Put them in the water, they adapt really well. The secret is to help them, have them become comfortable so they are not frightened.”
Melissa Munson found out about “Grandma” Louise through Louise’s granddaughter Patty. Melissa has two handicapped children who could not go to regular swimming lessons. Louise was a perfect way for her children to learn. “She was not only able to teach them, but she sparked my swimming again,” Munson says, whose inspiration led her to classes in CPR, first aid and swimming so she could help Louise teach.
Along with teaching swimming lessons, Louise also taught lifesaving and CPR classes. She would teach the students the Reaching Assist method of lifesaving by putting a boat in the middle of the pool and showing them what to do if it tipped over.
Born and raised in Gregory, Texas, Louise lived on a ranch where her father was a cowboy rancher. “We lived five miles from school so my siblings and I rode horseback to school and tied our horses under a tree in the schoolyard,” Louise says.
“We lived by the creeks and rivers and the cattle tanks,” Louise says as she tries to remember when she first began to swim. She moved to Pomona after she got married at the age of 17. “Albert’s family was out here in California, and they encouraged us to come out here because the job situation was better,” Louise explains, “so we came and lived with my mother-in-law.” Then Louise and her husband moved into her current home in Old Town La Verne 50 years ago.
Louise is now 80 years old and does not teach swimming as much as she would like, but her grandchildren and neighbor children still come over in the summer to swim. “It’s been a blessing, a real joy,” Louise says. “I taught all the kids to swim, haven’t had one drowning.”
Louise may not have taught any gold medalists, but, for years, she has selflessly taught the children in the community a lifelong skill, and everyone involved admits gratefulness. “Louise inspires people to do their best at whatever they are doing,” Munson says. “She has always been my inspiration, my hero.”