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The Red Cross Life Saving Corps Marks Century of Water Safety

  • “Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow
    “Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow
  • “Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow
    “Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow
  • “Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow
    “Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow
Water is a good friend or a deadly enemy," the Commodore would tell his pupils. "After you have been properly introduced to it, keep on good terms with it. Don't slap it, try hugging it—an armful at a time!

In February, 1914, the Red Cross Life Saving Corps was formed with established water safety instructor “Commodore” Wilbert E. Longfellow as the head of the program. His vast experience combined with vision, aquatic skills, teaching ability, and showmanship, made him a natural leader. The service was officially known as the Life Saving Corps of the American National Red Cross.

Longfellow’s work started 13 years prior to his association with the Red Cross. From his unique vantage point in the early 1900s as a reporter covering the water front for the local paper in Providence, Rhode Island, he realized the rising death toll from drowning could grow to the proportions of a national tragedy unless new safety standards were introduced.

Eager to do what he could to help save lives, Longfellow mastered various swimming styles and lifesaving skills. His news articles often featured waterfront safety instructions. An early association with the U.S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps even earned him the title of “Commodore.” These combined experiences propelled him towards his objective “the waterproofing of America.”

As head of the Red Cross Lifesaving Corps, Longfellow implemented his plan by gathering support from the local swimming community, providing additional training in lifesaving and resuscitation and establishing a volunteer lifesaving corps for local pools and beaches. Once a basic water safety framework was in place, Longfellow held large scale swimming lessons.

Public demand for swimming and lifesaving instruction spread and the toll of lives lost through drowning receded. For the next 33 years, until he retired in 1947, Longfellow traveled around the country providing swimming and lifesaving instructions.

After 100 years, Longfellow’s legacy lives on as the American Red Cross aquatics program continues reaching millions of Americans through its innovative water safety resources, which include a new free Swim app, swim courses customized for adults, and a Water Safety Instructor course that incorporates advanced simulation learning.

And to mark 100 years of Red Cross swimming safety education, the Red Cross has launched a new national campaign to reduce drownings. As part of the campaign, the Red Cross is making a new sustained multi-year push to teach more people to swim safely nationwide, with a push to cut the drowning rate in half in 50 cities and train 50,000 more people to swim over the next several years.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.