Naperville woman honored for being the first female lifeguard ever at Centennial Beach

Seventy-four years ago, a Naperville woman did something that no one in her town had ever done before. She worked as a lifeguard at Centennial Beach.

On Thursday night, she was honored for her groundbreaking work.

“I just had my 95th birthday,” said Marjorie Wehrli Walsh, as she sat down at Centennial Beach to reflect on her experiences. It’s a place she has been coming since the beach opened 85 years ago.

But in 1942, when young men in Naperville were going off to fight in World War II, there was a shortage of lifeguards. So, Marge applied and was hired.

“I thought it was great because I was outside, and I could jump in whenever I got too hot and the hours aren't bad and I only live two blocks away, so I could walk,” Marge said.

Back then, women working as lifeguards was unheard of. Now, Marge is being hailed for being a trailblazer.

“I never thought of it that way, never even thought of that. I just knew I was certified and I could certainly handle the shallow end kids,” she said.

Marge held that job for three summers, until she graduated from Northern Illinois University.

So, how did the male lifeguards treat her?

“Oh they were wonderful, they were wonderful,” she said, adding there was no problem with sexism and everyone was very helpful.

Marge remembers a couple of drownings in the deep end and a close call in the shallow end where she worked.

“I had a couple that came running down and jumped in the water, but they didn't see where they were. They thought they were at the first ladder but they were by the second ladder, and then of course they went under,” Marge said, adding that she jumped in and pulled them to safety.

On Thursday night, the Naperville Park District recognized Marge for blazing the trail for others.

“Marge was among the women that paved the way for many future generations of women in the workforce and not only at Centennial Beach in Naperville, but everywhere,” said Mike Reilly, President of the Park District Board of Commissioners.

Marge was also presented with a white and red chair of her own to use at the beach.

“Thanks for all the hoopla that this is going through, I never even thought of that years ago. I needed a job and that's what I did, thanks,” Marge told the commissioners.

If you visit Centennial Beach this summer, you'll see Marge there, either playing cards with friends on a knoll called Beach Bum Hill or in the water she loves, where last summer she swam eight 50 meter laps.

“I used to come down and I tried to stay in the water a whole hour and I swim around the deep end but I've been swimming here in the laps because I don't feel that strong anymore,” Marge said with a laugh.

But at 95, she's still going strong.