Hero of Galveston Island: The Legacy of Leroy Colombo (1905-1972)

Here is another deaf athlete (similar to Dummy Hoy who David wrote about) who our readers may not be familiar with–Leroy Colombo, a deaf lifeguard of Galveston, Texas.


Boys at Swimming Hole, 1922
Image courtesy of Jean F. Andrews

Leroy Colombo, best known on Galveston Island for his swimming prowess, was a gifted athlete, an indefatigable lifeguard, and an admired humanitarian who saved 1,000 lives from drowning deaths in the Gulf of Mexico from 1925 to 1970. What is remarkable about Leroy’s heroic achievements was not that he was deaf; he lost his hearing at the age seven purportedly from meningitis, but that he achieved so much during an era when deaf people faced enormous societal barriers. Leroy harnessed his athletic abilities and became a champion sea-water racer and a lifeguard who saved the lives of vacationing tourists who were enticed into the Gulf’s warm, shallow and inviting waters, but treacherous rip tides.


Dedication of Leroy Colombo Swimming Center in Galveston, TX.
Image Courtesy of Jean Andrews

To the deaf community Leroy was a hero, a legend in Texas swim racing, lifeguarding and an inspiration for not letting his deafness hold him back. Throughout his life of 68 years, Leroy suffered from poverty, societal discrimination toward his hearing loss, and alcoholism. None of his hearing family members or hearing lifeguard colleagues learned sign language. Leroy’s membership in the deaf community is an aspect of his life that defines him and may have contributed to his choice of careers as a lifeguard, a job that requires keen visual and motion detection skills. His legend is documented in numerous newspaper articles about him archived in the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, and in deaf periodicals. Even today his name is honored in an annual 5K Leroy Colombo race held each summer in Galveston. In 2002, Leroy was inducted into the Texas School for the deaf Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2005, by an act of the legislature, the natatorium at the Texas School for the Deaf was named, the Leroy Colombo Swim Center.

English: Texas School for the Deaf Español: Es...
Texas School for the Deaf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


7 thoughts on “Hero of Galveston Island: The Legacy of Leroy Colombo (1905-1972)

  1. The man is a hero. The man saved many lives. I trust the statistic that he is credited with saving more people than any other lifeguard. Obviously there are firemen, doctors, and people working in the Coast Guard who have saved others. Military veterans have also served while trying to save lives (think how many died in the holocaust and if Hitler would have stopped at that same level on his own if not confronted by the Western powers) I have an ancestor who took some of his sons and saved over 100 lives from drowning during the 1900 Galveston storm. I think the 5K race is a good idea, but it should be more of a swim-a-thon to honor his biggest legacy. Also, it would be nice if the funds were used to fund disability services for blind, deaf, or physically impaired on Galveston Island rather than the Beach Patrol in general.


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