Ask Long Beach residents who the late Evelyn du Pont was and what she meant to the city. Most people will scratch their head and have no idea.

That's unfortunate because she came up with an idea, and funds for it, that has enriched the lives of thousands of greater Long Beach residents with disabilities and other health issues. At one point in her life, she was selected as one of the most caring persons in the United States.

She also was a colorful character whose story could make a Hollywood movie.

Long Beach was the farthest place from young Evelyn's mind when she was born in Canada in 1914 with a love of water. In fact, she loved the water so much she became a competitive swimmer and swam amid ice floes on the St. Lawrence River.

"I thought I'd have fish scales when I got older," she joked in an interview with the Los Angeles Times years ago.

Wearing a gold lame swimsuit, she was an aquatic star and performed in water shows in East Coast hotels in the 1940s-50s. She moved to Long Beach in 1950 so she could enjoy the warm climate and swim all year.

But her life was to change abruptly when she was stricken with polio and told that she not only would not swim again but she wouldn't walk again.

She was devastated by the news. But, because she had worked as a volunteer with children with polio in Canada, she knew the value of water therapy and decided she should try it herself. She built a chair lift in the backyard pool at her East Long Beach home and began a rigorous swimming program that led to her recovery and walking again.


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"It was a miracle," she said at the time. "Now, I'm walking in heels, dancing and showing off."

While she was using her pool, she let children with disabilities use it also. Her pool became so popular, it was overcrowded. She began looking for a bigger pool to help more people.

In 1963 she bought what had been the Long Beach Swim School at 6801 Long Beach Blvd. It was in disrepair, so Evelyn, with the help of the city and unions, fixed it up and, in 1977, enclosed the pools. The facility has gone through several name changes, starting with California Pools for the Handicapped, then Pools of Hope and, currently, the California Aquatic Therapy & Wellness Center.

Since 1963, the pools have provided more than one million hours of therapy to thousands of children and adults with disabilities and health needs, according to Pat Dixon, executive director of the Aquatic Center.

Although Evelyn du Pont passed away in the 1990s and many may not know her name, there are those who do remember her, including former California Gov. George Deukmejian who honored her at the 50th Anniversary of the Pools of Hope at the Virginia Country Club earlier this month.

He remembered her as a caring person who fought hard to raise money for the pools. She called herself "a ramrodder" who never took no for an answer when she was looking for money.

Debbie Adams, who was in a car accident at 28 and has been coming to the pools for more than 20 years, said in an emotional testimonial, "When I first came to the Aquatic Center, I could not walk, and now I can walk down the pool ramp into the pool. I don't know what I would do without it. The people there are like family."

Evelyn du Pont must be smiling and pleased with how her struggle with polio and her backyard pool have grown into a Long Beach institution helping so many people.

If you want to help with your time or money, call Pat Dixon at 310-537-2224 or email her at info@caaquatictherapy.com. For more information, visit the website, californiaaquatictherapy.com

Rich Archbold is a member of the Los Angeles News Group editorial board. rich.archbold@presstelegram.com