Who is Ron Kirk?

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Lifeguard hall of famer still enjoys the job

Ron Kirk of the Ocean City Beach Patrol Ron Kirk of the Ocean City Beach Patrol OCEAN CITY — The only active lifeguard ever to be inducted into the Ocean City Beach Patrol’s Hall of Fame, Lt.  Ron Kirk won a record six South Jersey lifeguard championships, four Superathlon competitions – running, swimming and rowing – and 32 intercity rowing championships. 

For nearly a decade, beginning in 1979, Kirk was winning every lifeguard championship he entered, including the Margate Memorial, Dutch Hoffman and Cape May County championships.

Now in his 41st season, Kirk no longer competes, but maintains his love of guarding and rowing as he continues to serve the OCBP in an administrative role.

He was the second of three children born to the late Jim and Audrey Kirk. He was raised in Linwood, graduated Mainland Regional High School in 1972 and graduated Monmouth University with a degree in biology in 1978 after taking time off to surf in Puerto Rico.

Kirk began his career substituting at Ocean City High School where his father was a guidance counselor. He taught at MRHS and in high schools in California and Utah before returning to New Jersey for good, accepting a position teaching chemistry at Atlantic City High School. 

Kirk’s first job was at Johnson’s Ice Cream and Candy on the Ocean City Boardwalk. He scooped ice cream, ran the taffy machine and helped make candy. From there, he went to Hogate’s on the bay and in 1972 tried out for the OCBP.

“I loved the beach and I thought it would be better than working as a busboy, so I tried out,” he said.

Serving on the OCBP brought out his competitive edge. He won the first round of the intercity championship his rookie year and was hooked on rowing.

“I loved surfing, I went surfing a lot,” he said. “A big part of rowing, and racing, is getting out through the waves. My experience surfing helped me to do that. As a rookie, I had a strong desire to compete. I worked hard toward that goal. I wanted to be good enough to win the South Jersey’s.”

Kirk credits his father for honing his rowing skills.

“My father was a counselor at Camp Edge, a Boy Scout camp in Salem County, and he taught me how to row when I was 7,” he said.  “When I was growing up, we used to spend a lot of time there. I learned to swim and row.”

Kirk quickly put his skills to use, but it took time to become a champion.

“I won my first South Jersey Championship in 1979, it took me seven years to get there,” he said. “I kept practicing. I would start rowing in mid-May, I’d run eight to 14 miles every day. I did pushups and sit-ups, I did everything I could. You have to be strong, you have to run, build up your cardio; that’s a major part of rowing.”

“I loved the thrill of competition,” he said. “It was exciting. It gets your adrenaline flowing.”

Kirk said it is his “willingness to put in three or four hours a day, six days a week training” that led to his success.

“I learned from my mistakes,” he said. “I made mistakes in races sometimes; I learned and did not let it happen again. Over many races, the number of mistakes I made went down. You have to make a lot of mistakes to have a lot of success. I definitely had my share of them over the years.”

Kirk remains an active participant in the competitions.

For many years, he did the “steering,” helping to guide the competitors with a large flag. Now he’s a lane judge, or a starter, and he watches the finish to make sure his patrol gets an accurate call.

“I do miss the competition,” he said. “I loved being out there, but my feeling is that it’s time to let the young guys do it, have their turn.”

Local historian and former OCBP Lt. Fred Miller said Kirk is a South Jersey “legend.”

“No one has won more South Jersey titles,” Miller said. “He was a good swimmer, a great rower and he could run fast. He’s an amazing guy and he’s a great lifeguard.”

Kirk, he said, is a good ambassador for the city.

“He’s very, very nice, always friendly and helpful,” he said.

Now comfortably ensconced on an Ocean City lagoon with his wife Diane, Kirk rows a Van Duyne row boat three or four times a week, year-round.

“Unless there’s ice on the bay, I’m out there,” he said, adding that he particularly enjoys the peace and serenity of the inland waterway during the off-season. “After the tourists leave, you can really relax out there. I’ve seen dolphins, and one time I saw a humpback whale out in the ocean. It went right under me and it was huge. It got so close I could smell its breath!”

After many years in the third zone, based at 34th Street, Kirk is now in charge of the first zone.
“I still enjoy lifeguarding, very much so,” he said. “I like the camaraderie. I enjoy working with young people. Most of the guards are younger than me of course; the job helps keep me young.”

The philosophy, “once a guard, always a guard,” rings true, he said.

“I made a lot of good friends over the years,” he said. “It’s been a big part of my life.”

Kirk said while the basics of the job remain the same – protecting bathers in the ocean – the job is never boring as each day brings new people and new challenges. Kirk estimates after 41 years he’s been involved in over 1,000 rescues.

“We have always been a beach patrol that’s preventative rather than reactive,” he said. “We’re always watching, always trying to improve. Things can change from one minute to the next, the tide comes in, the tide goes out; it really is an ever-changing environment. In the morning the wind can be calm and the ocean peaceful, by afternoon the wind can stir things up, which creates rip currents. You have to vigilant.”

Kirk thanks his parents and grandparents, who lived next door to his boyhood home, for providing lots of love and inspiring him to be successful, as well as a big change in his life at the age of 27.

“It was 1981 and I had no religion in my life,” he said. “I became a member of the Mormon Church. I learned a lot about eating healthy, self-discipline and living a healthy lifestyle.”

“Around that time, I started winning races, it made a huge difference in my life,” he said. “I was more dedicated to trying to be successful. It changed my whole outlook on life. My priorities changed and that had a lot to do with my success.”

Kirk has two children, Halle, 19, and Jackson, 17, and two step-grandchildren, Katherine, 7, and Dutch, 5.

He enjoys snow skiing, riding his bike, rowing, swimming and going to the gym where he lifts weights and works out on an ergometer. 

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