By Harry Funk
As some youngsters pass through the entrance to the Woodland Hills Club for a day of swimming, a familiar gentleman greets them.
“Whoa! You look like bank robbers,” he says, referring to the masks they’re wearing as protection against COVID-19.
The kids giggle as they proceed toward the temptingly blue water, replicating the scenario that Harry Peterson Jr. has witnessed – without the face wear, until this year – countless times over the past six-plus decades.
Yes, that’s right. Harry has been spending his summers at the private Upper St. Clair swim club since starting as a lifeguard in 1959, staying for the first full season the following year, and being appointed manager in 1964.
As such, he has plenty of material for walks down Memory Lane, or in this case, a trip up Bingham Drive.
“We used to call that the Burma Road,” he says, referencing a famously makeshift trail while motioning toward the street that connects the Woodland Hills with Boyce Road below. “That was nothing but a dirt road. There were not any homes up here or down there.”
He then points at an area inside the club proper.
“This, where the tennis court is, was a swamp,” Harry recalls, “and the science teachers would come here to get little frogs and things like that.”
Another of yesteryear’s anecdotes involves the monitoring of the original section of the main pool:
“We used to have a wooden lifeguard’s chair down there. Problem was, every night the kids would sneak in and push it into the pool, and it would be floating around.”
Also regarding the folks who watch over the swimmers, he remembers when four of ’em would be sufficient for a summer, with an additional half shift on weekends.
“Now,” Harry reports, “you have 30-some lifeguards to run the pool.”
These days, they’re stationed atop metal chairs anchored to the concrete below, scouting for anything resembling a problem among Woodland Hills members and guests using the club’s main amenity.
It pretty much has been the same since Aug. 8, 1959, an opening day that was a bit later than initially anticipated, but photos of the occasion show the sun shining on crowds of folks who probably didn’t mind the delay.
Before World War II, swimming in public pools had been kind of an iffy proposition, as it was linked to the possibility of contracting polio.
Along with Dr. Jonas Salk’s announcement of a vaccine in 1953, the widespread use of chlorine as a sanitation measure against the virus served to assure Americans that they could enjoy such summer activities safely.
Enter the Woodland Hills Club.
In 1999, Harry was joined by member Stacy Basil in compiling scrapbooks of the club’s formative years, an impressive collection of documents, photographs and newspaper clippings, many of the latter from long-defunct publications.
One is the Mt. Lebanon News, which had an anonymous reporter cover a meeting of Upper St. Clair commissioners in October 1958. The result probably is the first widespread mention of what would transpire:
“A group of residents in Upper St. Clair Township and Bethel Borough” – nowadays, you know it as Bethel Park – “have formed a non-profit corporation, the Woodland Hills Club, to build and operate a swimming pool and recreation area.”
And the author makes sure to note:
“No alcoholic beverages will be sold or permitted on the premises.”
The club archives contain quite a bit of material from the ceremonial groundbreaking of April 25, 1959, including a typewritten schedule for the day listing the Rev. John Galbreath, founding pastor of Upper St. Clair’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, as giving the dedication.
Coverage of the event by the long-gone Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram features the headline “Work to start on new pool” with subhead: “Swimming is promised by July 4th.” The timeline is echoed by the Boro News, which once was published as “serving the Bethel, Castle Shannon and Snowden areas”:
“Construction on the pool will begin in early May and should be completed by July 4, figuring the average construction time of 60 days for pools of this type.”
That “average” may not have taken into account the weather of Western Pennsylvania.
At any rate, the club and its two pools – 43 by 82 feet for adults, 20 by 25 feet for the kiddies – were ready to go well before the summer’s end. And along with the swimmers came Harry Peterson, a physical education major at the University of Pittsburgh.
“When you were in phys ed, you had to have some kind of physical education job in the summertime,” he recalls. “I was in class one day, and this one fellow said to me, ‘Hey, there’s a new pool being opened in Upper St. Clair.’”
Although the location isn’t that far from Harry’s hometown of Dormont, he admits that the then-rural township was kind of off his beaten path at the time. He obviously took a liking to what he was doing, even after joining the faculty of what then was Bellevue School District.
“I just came year after year, because in those days,” he explains, “teachers didn’t make a lot of money.”
His retirement after 36 years hasn’t included him stepping down as Woodland Hills’ senior manager.
“People are very nice to me out here. They’ve always been nice,” Harry says. “But time flies.”