WWII veteran, lifeguard and civic leader, French dies at 91

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Bob French of Ocean City died Oct. 4 at the age of 91 Bob French of Ocean City died Oct. 4 at the age of 91

OCEAN CITY — Former four-sport varsity athlete at Ocean City High School, World War II veteran, civic leader and local real estate broker Robert C. French died on Thursday, Oct. 4. He was 91.

A Navy aviator, French flew reconnaissance and patrol flights in the Pacific Theater. President Harry Truman marked the seventh anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1948 by honoring French with the Air Medal and a citation for meritorious acts in the war zone in 1944 and 1945. In presenting the medal to French, Truman noted, “His conduct and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

French was, at 5’6” and 140 pounds, an unlikely high school football star. But his speed and agility helped him tear up the track and field. He competed with the likes of Archie Harris, who went on to break a world record in the javelin and discus, and John Carey.

When French returned to Ocean City after the war, he married his high school sweetheart Marie Craig and helped build the family business, French Real Estate, into a Gardens landmark while raising three boys. Along the way, he became the hard-working backbone of numerous civic organizations.

French joined the Ocean City Beach Patrol in 1938 and never forget the skills he learned, or the camaraderie. For more than 70 years, the OCBP held a special place in his heart. In 2010, French was awarded the organization’s Stowe Award and inducted into the OCBP Hall of Fame.

“Everybody loved Bob French,” said Fred Miller, local historian and former lifeguard. Honoring French with the Stowe award was a fitting tribute to a former guard, who not only served his country, but served the community and the beach patrol with great honor, Miller said.
“Bob did so much for professional lifeguarding,” he said.

French was instrumental in facilitating the sale of the former Wheaton Estate at Fifth Street and Bay Avenue to the city, now the Bayside Center and the Ocean City Rowing and Athletic Association lifeguard museum.

French was a lifeguard from 1937 to 1942 when he left to serve the Navy.

“Bob would probably have been a guard for a long time,” he said. “Like the others at that time, he left to serve.”

French, he said, was an “interesting guy” capable of hitting a long drive on the golf course with the best of them. The affable French was a phenomenal athlete in his day, Miller noted, proudly representing the high school on the football field and track, in the pool and on the tennis court.

French learned to row, a skill which French, in a Gazette interview in 2010, said helped him become one the best Navy aviators in the Pacific.

Highly trained, French hoped to become a fighter pilot, but fate put the advanced navigator in a plane that would patrol the coast. He was trained to land on water.

“My lifeguard training was invaluable,” he said. “It was advantageous that I learned how to ride and row the waves. I could land that plane on the water immediately. I could feel it. I became the lead navigator.”

French patrolled the Marshall, Mariana and Bonn islands in the Pacific. He helped to rescue 130 sailors from the sinking Indianapolis, despite circling great white sharks.

“They were huge, 22 feet long, but their bellies were full and they just moseyed around us,” he said. “By the skin of our teeth, we almost ran out of fuel. We got a lot of survivors, but also saw a lot of sailors die. We took their dog tags and gave them a burial at sea.”

French said the war emptied Ocean City in 1942. His mother worked for the Red Cross and his father patrolled the boardwalk on airplane watch.
“I said, ‘I gotta go,’” he said. “I was so angry and irked by what the Japanese did to us.”

French was born in Philadelphia in 1920 to Beatrice and Edward French. His father owned French Real Estate at 45th and Walnut.

“He was big, he had a big business, but when the crash came in ’29, he lost everything,” French said. “Dad said, ‘Well let’s start over in Ocean City,’ and we came down here.”

In 1940, Edward French opened French Real Estate at 1 Atlantic Ave. He paid $6,000 for the large corner lot with a $50 down payment.

“Dad built it up, I went to the war in 1942,” he said. “When I came back my dad, who served in World War I, he took me past what is now Veterans Field. He and Earl North had placed 22 white crosses there and planted holly trees for each of the fellows that we lost in the war. I cried when I saw it. The hollies are huge today.”

Real estate tanked during the war.

“There were some real lean years,” French said. “After the war, everything started to build again.”

French’s first real estate deal was a rambling cottage on Beach Road. From there, he worked side by side with his father, until the elder French passed away in 1954, leaving him to run the family business.

“I got involved with everything,” he said, adding that getting to know everyone in town was not only advantageous for his business, but what his father expected. “He said you give back, you serve your community.”

French served as president of Rotary Club and helped build the VFW. He was chairman of the planning board and helped create and build city playgrounds. He served as the vice president for the New Jersey Association of Realtors.

French worked with former Mayor Bob Sharp in creating the city’s golf course around the airport and helped build and sell the Ocean Reef and Nantucket condominium complexes.

He also helped build the Gardens and became president of the Gardens Civic Association.

French said he treasured his years on the Ocean City Beach Patrol.

“We had daily rescues,” he said. “I was at Brighton Place; you had the crowd going through the boardwalk, around the damn pilings.

“People rode right through and we had to get a rowboat out. It was good training. The Pacific Ocean looked pretty good next to that.

“I have nothing, but happy memories; Marie and I had a wonderful marriage. It’s amazing to look back at it all,” he said.

“I built a great business, a business of mountains and valleys. I rode some big waves in my life, in many ways. But it’s been a good life, an amazing life.”

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