By Brad Dison
On February 6, 1911, Dutch was born in an apartment above a bank in Tampico, Illinois. Soon after his birth, Dutch’s father quipped that he looked like “a fat little Dutchman.” He nicknamed him Dutch. As a toddler, his mother cut his hair in the fashionable style commonly called the “Dutch boy” haircut, which only reinforced the nickname. At eight years old, he, his brother Neil, and his parents Jack and Nell, moved to Dixon, Illinois, a city of about 9,000 people located approximately one hundred miles west of Chicago. The city was named after a John Dixon, owner and operator of a rope ferry service on Rock River, which runs through the city. Just north of Dixon is Lowell Park, a picturesque public area on the west bank of the Rock River. Residents and visitors to Dixon, including Dutch’s family, flocked to the park for picnics under the shade trees, whiling away the time on its sandy beach, fishing and swimming in the river’s normally calm waters, and hiking its numerous trails.
Dutch was popular and athletic. He made good grades in school and thrived at sports. He won varsity letters in five major sports. Dutch knew that if he wanted to go to college he would have to earn and save money for tuition. On one of his many fishing trips at Lowell Park, he secured a summer job as a lifeguard. On his first day as a lifeguard, Dutch saved a man’s life. The man swam in the Rock River and quickly found himself in trouble. Dutch saw that the man was struggling and rushed to his aid. Dutch pulled the man to the shore and “pumped the water out of him.” Rather than being thankful for Dutch saving his life, the man contended that he “had been in perfect command of the situation.” All Dutch had done, according the unappreciative man, was cause him a lot of embarrassment.
Dutch’s athleticism was an asset to Lowell Park. In 1927, his first year as a lifeguard, Dutch saved 11 lives. By July of the following year, Dutch had saved 13 more lives. In the seven years he worked as a lifeguard at Lowell Park Dutch saved seventy-seven lives. Dutch went above and beyond what was expected of him as a lifeguard. He taught others how to recognize when someone was in trouble, how to safely retrieve them from the water, and how to perform CPR. He also taught people how to swim and how to practice waterfront safety. In addition, he helped Boy Scouts earn merit badges in swimming and lifesaving.
Dutch earned enough money from his lifeguard job to attend Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. He kept his lifeguard position during the summers to pay for tuition. While at Eureka College, Dutch got the part of Captain Stanhope in the college production of Journey’s End. He earned praise for his portrayal of the captain, but Dutch’s ambition was not to become an actor. He was determined to become a sports announcer. In 1932, Dutch graduated from Eureka College with degrees in sociology and economics.
After college, he fulfilled his dream of being a sports announcer and worked for radio station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa. In the Spring of 1937, Dutch covered the Chicago Cubs’ spring training camp where he met Max Arnow, the casting director for Warner Brothers. Max was impressed by Dutch’s good looks and his unique, well-trained voice. Max asked Dutch to do a screen test for Warner Brothers. Dutch agreed but had little expectation that Warner Brothers would be interested. To his surprise, Warner Brothers offered him a long-term acting contract based on Max’s screen test. Dutch left his job at the radio station and moved to Hollywood where he immediately began filming. In the Fall of 1937, Warner Brothers released three films which featured Dutch. In the following year, Dutch appeared in ten more Warner Brothers productions. Between 1937 and 1965, Dutch appeared in over eighty film and television productions.
Even with a career change and a move from Illinois to California, Dutch was unable to escape from his lifeguarding days at Lowell Park. In the Summer of 1938, Dutch was walking on one of the beaches near Hollywood when a young woman stopped him. They had a brief conversation in which she said that she, too, was from Illinois. She gave him a quick kiss, and said, “Thank you.” She was the seventy-seventh person Dutch had saved while working as a lifeguard at Lowell Park. A couple of years later, Dutch received a fan letter from a Miss Ledrine. She wrote, “You may not remember me but you pulled me out of Rock River at Lowell Park about ten years ago. I owe my life to you.”
Dutch usually tried to distance himself from the heroic tales people told about him. “The less I’m reminded of life saving the better I’ll like it.” In 1940, Dutch told a reporter, “It’s a strange thing, but the reaction of most people when they’re saved from drowning is resentment and humiliation at having been in such a helpless plight. I learned it the hard way.” “The only time I rescued a beautiful girl her heart belonged to somebody else. The only rewards I ever got were a pair of bathing trunks for hauling in one of my best friends and $10 for finding a man’s lower teeth on the river bottom. The rest of the time, all I got was abuse.” The abuse failed to hinder his efforts. During his seven years as a lifeguard, not a single person lost their life to drowning at the park.
In recognition of Dutch’s service as a lifeguard, Lowell Park named his favorite fishing spot Dutch’s Landing. In 1981, some 54 years after he saved his first drowning victim, Dutch got a new job. You see, Dutch, the man who saved seventy-seven lives as a lifeguard, was the nickname of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
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- Dixon Evening Telegraph, July 23, 1928, p.1.
- The Pittsburgh Press, August 7, 1938, p.30.
- The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), August 21, 1939, p.11.
- Dixon Evening Telegraph, January 17, 1940, p.3.
- Dixon Evening Telegraph, May 28, 1940, p.9.
- Woodford County Journal (Eureka, Illinois), June 13, 1940, p.3.
- Dixon Evening Telegraph, September 15, 1941, p.2.
- The Dixon Telegraph, August 15, 1950, p.13.