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The History of Chapel Hill Youth Swimming – Part 1

by George Steel

In the late 1950s, my brother and I rode our bikes from Victory Village, where we lived with our Mother who was a UNC grad student, all over the south side of Chapel Hill, from Purefoy Road down Mason Farm Road, over to and up S. Columbia Street, down Raleigh (or South) Road to Country Club Road, and up to E. Franklin Street. This was our territory. Summers, we headed toward Woollen Gym by cutting across Manning Drive from Victory Village, going around the east side of Memorial Hospital, around the west side of Kenan Stadium, down to the Bell Tower parking lot, up to South Road, and left, past the Bell Tower and Tin Can. Summers seemed longer then.

Woollen Gym – UNC Chapel Hill
Woollen Gym – Bowman Gray pool is inside the structure on the right.

Free Swim Lessons

There in the summer at Woollen Gym, or just "Woollen," the University provided free morning swim lessons for the children of Chapel Hill, five days a week, two sessions each summer. A couple of hundred kids crowded the Bowman Gray indoor pool and the Navy (Kessing) outdoor pool. Kids in the beginners swim class sat on the indoor pool deck with their feet dangling in the shallow end. Mike, UNC wrestling coach, swim teacher, and director of the program, stood in the water, jock strap riding up his back, facing the kids. "Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick!!" Dozens of pairs of little legs furiously churned up a small squall into which Mike disappeared from sight.

Bowman Gray pool - UNC Chapel HIll
An old shot of Bowman Gray pool from the deep end. The pool is enormous, 50-meters long. The balcony is in the distance on middle right side of the photo. The bridge that divides the pool into a 25-meter side and a 25-yard side wasn't installed yet.  (Courtesy North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill)

Kessing pool - UNC Chapel Hill
Kessing pool – 1945. The Kessing Pool first opened in 1943 and provided aquatic training for the U.S. Navy's pre-flight divisions in World War II. Former presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, and my father, Logan Steel, trained at the center. Kessing Pool is 50 yards long.  (Courtesy North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill)

Woollen's locker rooms were on the same level as the pool deck. From the balcony overlooking the indoor pool, my brother and I entered the men's side by going down the stairs to the left. At the beginning of each season, we were sized and outfitted for swim suits. We undressed in a small locker room and with all the other boys, lined up single-file, and walked naked down the subterranean hall, to the main men's locker room. There the workmen behind the "cage" estimated your waist size (24", 26") and issued you, like dealing a playing card across a table-top, a freshly laundered (and pressed) swim suit. They gave you a basket to store your clothes in, which you gave back to the men at the window for storage, before you went to the pool. When swim lessons were over, you returned to get your basket and a fresh white towel, indelibly marked "WG" in black.

You were not permitted to wear your own swim suit. It might be dirty, and polio had not yet been forgotten. The pool was perfectly clean; I have not seen a cleaner pool since. The girls had to wear caps to cover their hair. The boys' swim suits were incredibly ugly and ill-fitting heavy cotton things, usually a size or two too large with stretched waists and strings hanging out, not to mention other things. After putting on the suits, the boys showered just enough to get wet, and stepped through the chlorinated foot baths onto the indoor pool deck about midway between the shallow and deep ends, or out the back way to the outdoor pool. The girls entered onto the indoor pool deck from behind the diving boards.

The swim classes progressed in skill level from the beginners in the shallow end, 3 feet deep, to the most advanced in the deep end, 12 feet deep. There were probably 4 or 5 classes in the indoor pool, likewise the outdoor pool.

The teachers, mostly teen-agers, helped you learn by having you swim out to where they stood in the water. Then, after a little instruction, they pushed you back to the side of the pool. Soon you could swim all the way across the pool. The teacher promoted you to the next class when they felt you were ready. In the more advanced classes, you learned other strokes, or dove off the diving board.

Sometime during my second summer of swim lessons, feeling overlooked by the teachers of the elementary-level class I was in, I promoted myself to the classes in the outdoor pool, skipping past the remaining indoor pool classes. There was no formal certificate for promotion, so the next day I just mixed in with the other kids already in the outdoor pool. My technique and skills were not quite their level, but no one tossed me back. I had bluffed my way to the outdoor pool!

Kids Using The Gym

Use of Woollen by the kids of Chapel Hill was not strictly limited in those days. Maybe it was the times. What was it about those days? Certainly everything has its price now. The Woollen staff had better things to do, and so looked the other way. My brother and I spent hours and hours there. You could enter the gymnasium area from the back side onto the wooden floor. There were basketball courts, climbing ropes, pommel horses, uneven and parallel bars, and gymnastic rings. You could play pickup basketball games. My brother and I and friends played hours of "BB", often challenging the "College Joe's". Woollen was where the UNC Basketball Team practiced and played until Carmichael opened in 1965. It was not unknown to sneak into the Gym for UNC games either. I know I saw Billy Cunningham miss a dunk one time.

Recreational Swim

After swim lessons were over, you could get a "Dreamsicle" from the lady with the ice cream motor bike parked at the top of the parking lot by the pool. Then you could stay around until "12 to 1", the recreational swim period, when kids and families could swim in the outdoor pool. A pool pass was required, but at a nominal fee. Mother always made sure we had one. The kids played "Marco Polo," dove off the high dive, or practiced their cannon balls and jackknives. Sometimes the indoor pool was open to recreational swimming. A bridge bisected the indoor pool into a 25-meter side and a 25-yard side. You could duck under the bridge and come up inside it. There was another recreational swim period later in the afternoons, and longer recreational swim periods on Saturdays. I absolutely thrived on swimming at the UNC indoor and outdoor pools at Woollen!



Patti Terrill Sinclair      11:43 PM Mon 5/19/2014

I'm only now reading this article on 5/19/14 but it certainly did bring back lots of memories. My parents moved to CH when I was 4 and enrolled me in swim lessons. I started in the shallow end and moved up through the ranks learning the strokes and becoming a proficient swimmer. I recall being encouraged to join the swim team but feeling uncomfortable doing that back then and self-conscious about not wanting to develop big shoulders! I often had summer tennis lessons up on campus in the early mornings before the heat and humidity got too high; took along a lunch to eat and went to the 12-1 and 3-4 swim times, which were great as well as family time when my parents would be there. We ended up killing time wandering around campus or trying to find someplace cool in the days before air conditioning. I did end up lifeguarding for one summer at the new UNC faculty pool that was built in late 1960's and I've been swimming over 50 years for exercise. I love being in the water and am fortunate to have learned that skill as a youngster. I swam 48 laps in 30 minutes recently. We have access to wonderful pools in our community out here in AZ; there's even a Master's level swim team coached by a former SEAL! I introduced my children to swimming as infants,

Joff Coe      4:05 PM Wed 1/11/2012

<br \>Well, only a year late! But I wanted to add that I too saw Billy Cunningham miss that dunk in Woollen Gym. I remember it vividly, he threw it down hard and it hit the back of the rim and sailed all the way to the top of the rafters! Also, I remember the high school style pull out bleachers, and that kids could just walk in without a ticket. BTW, tickets now are around $55 each!<br \><br \>Was at the Kessing Pool many times in those days, as well as playing basketball in the Tin Can and Woollen, but never participated in the organized swim clubs.<br \><br \>And thank you Charly for maintaining this website and keeping the memories alive.<br \><br \>

Andrew Barnes      7:36 PM Thu 6/16/2011

The gentleman&#39;s name teaching swimming was Mike Rodman. He wasn&#39;t the Wrestling coach, which was my Dad, Sam Barnes. We walked to the swim lessons from our house on Penick Lane in the Westwood neighborhood, barefoot, and walked through the classrooms on the way. Everything in the world was in a jar of Formaldehyde! All us kids knew where the best bathrooms and coldest water fountains were all over campus. Chapel Hill in the mid 60&#39;s was a magical place, thanks for keeping the memories flowing.

Barbara Bartlett Foster      11:45 AM Tue 2/22/2011

Memories! We lived on MacCauley St., so my sister, Betsy and I just rode our bikes the four blocks down to the pool every week day for our lessons-still vivedly remember the smell of the clorine! <br \>The high dive was scarey, and I never did get over my fear of it! But the lessons learned served me well as I became a Red Cross registered life guard, as did our three children, and volunteered at a Girl Scout summer camp for over 20 years, and the kids helped pay for their college by working as life guards! All because of my &quot;summer swimming lessons&quot;!<br \>Also, watched my brother, Charlie Bartlett, win some swimming races in that pool for UNC in the late &#39;40&#39;s-set some records which stood for quite awhile!

Jack Spitznagel      8:23 PM Tue 1/18/2011

Fond (and a few not-so-fond memories)... All of the above plus:<br \>The smell of Woolen Gym.<br \>Getting my foot run over by the Bell Cart when it was being pushed around the floor of the gym by a bunch of kids.<br \>Shivvvvvering on the deck of the Navy Pool early in the season.<br \>When &quot;The Big Day&quot; came and you were allowed to start swimming with the Chapel Hill Swim Club. <br \>When you were allowed to go to the Circus Room by yourself.<br \>Little League Baseball at upper fields near Fetzer Field.<br \>The 4th of July Celebration at the old baseball/track stadium (near where the Student Union is today?)<br \>Sharing all these memories here with some of my childhood friends.

Dianne Thompson Rolwing      8:27 PM Wed 12/29/2010

<br \>I remember all the swim lessons and being really scared to be promoted to the deep end. Mr. Mullis was the instructor in the deep end (just past the divider) and if you didn&#39;t jump in on your own he threw you in. I know he was just doing his job but I was really afraid. After his class, and I got promoted, the classes were a breeze thanks to Mr. Mullis. When I was older, I remember riding the city bus from the Greenwood neighborhood to swim until lunch. Several of us would walk to Lenoir Hall and get lunch. Wow, we were really grown up at 12 yrs. old. ( I think Pine Hall was below the cafeteria) Wonderful memories!!!

Nora Gaskin Esthimer      9:14 AM Mon 12/27/2010

Loved this! 12 to 1 was a daily thing for us. We lived too far out to bike to the pool, so Mom drove us and came back to pick us up. Did we ever thank her? I sure hope so, and I hope she just knew. <br \><br \>Marco...anybody?

Bill Baggett      11:10 PM Sun 12/26/2010

I remember on the High Diving Board, we did jack knives and the goal was to make a high splash. An average splash would be as high as the diving platform, if you were really good your splash would be higher than the railing.

Fred Croft      10:37 AM Sat 12/25/2010

I saw Billy Cunningham miss that dunk too! Never forget it.

George Coxhead Jr      12:19 PM Thu 12/23/2010

George, Boy did you jog some old, yet fond memories. Yes, the late 50&#39;s,I too was there going through the Woolen/ Kessing swim classes, with the baggy, cotten suits, and all the rest. It dawned on me while reading your account that so much of the hygiene,(foot baths, their suits, their towels, etc could have in fact been precautionary due to the polio outbreaks earlier in the decade. Anyway, I am looking forward to Part 2 the early history of the Chapel Hill Swim Team. I can kick in with some memories and history starting in the fall of 1961,(including the UNC football concession stand we worked), but you may be able to go back much further than that. I do remember that for those of us whose parents were not connected with the University were able to work a few days at registration in order for that to make us eligible to use the UNC pools. I am not a typist nor a computer whiz, but if someone instructs me, I can find some old team pictures to post on this site. Through my email, catch me up on how and what you and Griff are doing. Look forward to hearing and contributing more to thispart on Chapel Hill life that influenced so many of us. Christmas and New Year&#39;s Blessings, George

Frieda Ellis Harden      11:14 PM Wed 12/22/2010

I surely remember those little dressing cubicles that Sarah G. mentioned. I remember squishing into one with my mother and both of us knocking into each other with every bend of a knee to get into or out of those swim suits. I also distinctly remember the smell of that long black rubber mat that ran through the gym, if I remember right, ushering little wet feet to and from the dressing rooms.

David McGowan      8:15 PM Tue 12/21/2010

what incredible memories this article brings back to a fellow &quot;biker&quot;. thank you, george, for this . there was nowhere we couldn&#39;t go. playing cards or ballons clipped to the wheels, slapping against the spokes in the tires. we would ride like the wind all over glen lennox, up the wooded path in greenwood to gimghoul castle and on to woollen gym or the brick sidewalks of campus. we&#39;d stop at the scuttlebutt, park our bikes and go inside for a 5 cent cherry coke. <br \>oh, and the swimming suits we wore at swimming lessons, purple!! i was convinced sarge always gave me the biggest one and it that hung off my skinny little body like wet purple rag. i can still close my eyes and smell the dampness of the dressing room and indoor pool. what great times they were.<br \>

Karen Harrison      1:29 PM Tue 12/21/2010

Thanks for the great article. It brings back so many wonderful memories. As I recall the more advanced swimmers were on the swim team which practiced at the outdoor pool. Do you remember if the team was &quot;coed&quot;, and did they ever compete against other teams?

Dave Kistler      5:23 AM Tue 12/21/2010

Kids Using the Gym: We tended to play BB @ the Tin Can. During my Jr. High days, if you went to Woollen, you would get run out. Just about every afternoon during BB season, me and my buddies went there for pick up games. However, the maintenance guys would run us out on ocassion. We would go somewhere for a while, then return, only to get run again.<br \><br \>After we finished playing, we would go to the Pine Room for a soda and one of those greasy hamburgers.<br \><br \>Loved that old gym, the way it smelled, the track around it, the poor lighting and the multiple half-courts.

Sarah Geer      8:37 PM Mon 12/20/2010

George, this is an absolutely wonderful article - you&#39;ve included everything, even the popsicle cart at the top of the hill, those foot baths, and Mike yelling &quot;Kick, kick, kick.&quot; I always wondered about the boys&#39; side of the gym, but I have to tell you that the girls did not line up naked to get our suits. We changed in little cubicles with cotton curtains. Our gym-issued suits were also that thick cotton, in blue or a dull red, but it was very exciting to age up to the larger nylon suits. &quot;12-to1&quot; was a great institution. We didn&#39;t need parents or older siblings for that hour, so the pool was PACKED. I would stand in a long line for a turn at one of the diving boards, and I&#39;ll never forget going off the high board for the first time. <br \>Like you and Griff, I also rode my bike to the pool after we no longer had car pools. I remember zooming down the big Raleigh Road hill toward Glen Lennox, going as fast as the cars. It was thrilling.<br \>I hope the second part of your article will cover the swim teams! Those early-morning practices created some fine swimmers.

Jim Baucom      8:29 PM Mon 12/20/2010

Swimming lessons at Woollen at age 5 or 6...some great memories. There was no YMCA in those days. Mothers would car pool us up there. I remember those ugly swim suits.. Had a draw string in the front. Then you graduated and hit big time, and went to the outdoor pool. <br \><br \>I always hear people talk about their days at Carolina, but few can share a story about swim lessons at that age at Woollen. Jim Baucom

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The University North Carolina's first student was Hinton James, who enrolled in February, 1795. There is now a dormitory on the campus named in his honor.





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