Of all the work Bob Johannesen has done as an American Red Cross volunteer, he enjoys teaching adults to swim the most. “Teaching adults to swim—that’s been my bag,” he quips.
Helping people in the community learn lifesaving water safety skills runs in Bob’s family. Both his father and his grandfather volunteered with what is now called the American Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety program. The comprehensive training program teaches people to swim and helps them be safe in, on and around the water.
Together, the three generations of Johannesens clocked more than 125 years of service as Red Cross water safety volunteers.
J.G. Johannesen, Bob’s grandfather, grew up in an orphanage in Baltimore, Maryland, after his father, a Norwegian sea captain, was lost at sea. That background may have been the reason young J.G. was captivated by the early twentieth century message of water safety crusader Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, “Every American a swimmer, every swimmer a life saver."
In 1912 J.G. received one of only 12 Red Cross Lifesaving Corps badges earned throughout the nation, and the only badge awarded in Baltimore. When the American Red Cross and Commodore Longfellow formally joined together in a nationwide water safety program two years later, J.G. was right there, poised to teach students and instructors.
Later Bob Johannesen, Sr., Bob’s father, earned his Red Cross Lifesaving Corps badge at the same Baltimore chapter, and taught swimming and life saving. He continued when the family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina.
Bob Sr. was an active Red Cross volunteer his whole life, and Bob Jr. heard his father talking about the Red Cross from the time he can remember. In addition to volunteering as a swimming instructor, Bob Sr. served as the first chair of the Red Cross Blood Donor Registry and as chair of the Greensboro Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Bob Johannesen, Jr. followed suit.
A Lifetime of Service
Bob Jr. began volunteering at age 16, when he was in high school. That was 1955. He earned his Red Cross Senior Lifesaving pin a year later, and began what would become three decades of teaching Red Cross life saving and swimming. Bob quickly became a water safety instructor, and then a water safety instructor trainer.
“I know how much my dad enjoyed teaching swimming,” Bob says, “I got the volunteer spirit from him, plus swimming is truly where my interest was.”
Bob especially enjoyed teaching adults. Most adult students did really well and were swimming by the end of the course. But a few were so petrified that putting their face into the water was a miracle of sorts. “They don’t learn to swim,” Bob says, “but to see them progress is really wonderful; their fierce effort brings tears to my eyes.”
Bob also likes to teach swim instructors how to teach adults. First Bob would have his student-instructors teach an adult beginner swimming class. Then they would debrief, going over the problems the student-instructors encountered and how each problem was solved.
Elected to the Board of Directors at 21, Bob, like his father before him, rose to become chapter chair. He has taken on all manner of activities and programs, including chair of the Executive Committee, chair of the Health and Safety Committee and first aid instructor. Last year the Greensboro Chapter recognized Bob’s 55 years of Red Cross service by naming him Board Member Emeritus, the highest honor the chapter can bestow.
Still an active Red Cross volunteer, Bob is planning to help with the office paperwork that can pile up following a disaster.
Passing the Tradition to a New Generation
A fourth generation of Johannesens has now become active in the Red Cross.
Bob’s oldest son, Eric, is a battalion chief with the Greensboro Fire Department. Eric recently spoke to Greensboro Chapter disaster volunteers, providing thanks and inspiration.
He told volunteers that after the fire crew leaves the scene of a disaster, it is the Red Cross that is left to help families pick up the pieces.
“Eric was very emotional when talking about Red Cross compassion to help families affected by disaster,” his father says, “Eric knows first hand about the good the Red Cross does.”