This is among my favorite stories I’ve ever written. It won an award of some type in a sportswriting category, which was really gratifying because the pool was special and the tack I took, writing the story as the pool itself, was quite a leap of faith.
Sadly, that magnificient pool is long gone. Perhaps the last time it was used for anything relevant was a scene in the movie Pitch Perfect. It was glorious facility.
Now that space will be home to offices and labs. One of my friends, LSU professor Melissa Thompson, who will have her new office there, sent a photo of what it looks like now. I’ve also included a couple of older shots, one from way back in the day and another when the pool was still used as a pool, probably in the late `1980s or early 1990s.
Here is the story from July 6, 1986. Enjoy:
BATON ROUGE MORNING ADVOCATE
Huey P. Long Pool : LSU landmark, 54, recounts its zany history
Publication Date: July 6, 1986 Page: 8-C Section: SPORTS
By LEE FEINSWOG
Former LSU swim coach Scott Woodburn has attended many a mid-winter practice at the Huey P. Long Pool:
“I used to wear long johns, sweatpants, pants, four undercoverings, including a sweat with a hood, and a three-quarter-length waterproof parka. And then as much as you could get on your feet, and never have enough to be warm. And we asked kids to swim in that stuff.”
But the water was up in the 80s, right?
“Sometimes, when the heater worked.”
So my heater didn’t always work. I’ve warmed the hearts of many a swimmer in my 54 years.
I’m the Huey P. Long Memorial Pool at LSU, and mine is the kind of story that cracks you up, one way or another. Since they first filled me with water, I’ve provided more stories and laughs than Huey ever imagined. And I’ve had more cracks in me than Humpty Dumpty. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, however, they always put me back together again, although it meant draining me dry.
They’ve done everything imaginable to me through the years, from caulking my cracks to covering me with a bubble to heating my water. Kids have gotten colds from me, skinned themselves by diving too hard into my shallow end, drank beer outside of me and thrown the cans into my deep end.
They’ve been overly amorous in my water and on my decks and I take credit for more than a few romances. They used to have clown shows here.
Students petitioned for me when the administration closed me in 1964 because it didn’t want blacks in my water. Swimmers have cursed me. But nearly everyone who has sprinted in my water, tossed a water polo ball over me, worked on their suntan near me or yelled for a swimmer to hit me harder, thinks fondly of me.
I may be old, and I may have been outdated before my time, but I’ve always been darn good looking and the focus of the party. Not everyone who has crossed my path has shivered to death, thank you. And you ask anyone who has ever seen me if they remember the first time they walked in here. They probably do. I make a heck of a first impression.
This is my story. Most of you weren’t around in May, 1932, when I made my debut as the creme de la creme of swimming pools. The story’s been scrambled through the years, and let me say right off that my memory is not as good as I’d like, but the reason I’m 60 yards long is because Huey himself had big plans for me.
It was in 1931 and I was nothing more than a massive hole in the ground. Huey was out walking around with Major Troy Middleton, the guy in charge of my construction. I remember looking up at them and hearing Huey ask if I’d be the longest pool in the country. Middleton told him no, that he thought the one at the U.S. Naval Academy would be longer. The governor turned to the construction foreman and demanded, “Put 10 more feet on this pool.” I almost burst with pride, because when I was finished, I’d be 180 feet long and 48 feet wide — the biggest pool in the world at the time. Can you imagine? Little did we know then what problems that would cause for swim coaches trying to run a meet.
They did such a nice job on me. As a hole full of water, I was nothing special except that I was so big. But my surroundings! I always liked former LSU swim coach Ted Stickles’ impression: “One of my first thoughts was “Roman Colosseum.’ You’ve got columns all around it,” Stickles said. “You’ve got a balcony above it all the way around it, almost. I had never seen anything like it. I knew it was an outdoor pool and knew it was long. But it was so different from a ‘normal’ pool.”
Stickles coached for eight seasons and endured my worst and appreciated my best, but we’ll get back to him later. The students, now, they loved me from the start. Unlike my year-old younger brother across the way — the LSU Natatorium — I was for all the students, not just the athletes. Every student had to come visit me as a freshman because part of their physical education requirement was to swim across me.
Those poor teachers, like W.G. Higginbotham, or Hickey, as everyone called him, sure had their hands full with some of them. One time, a freshman from out in the sticks somewhere just jumped in and sank. Hickey had to jump in and grab him, and when he finally got him out, asked him, “Why didn’t you say you couldn’t swim?” And the freshman shook his head and said, “I didn’t know. I’d never been swimming.”
Hickey was some kind of character. I was his baby for nearly 30 years and I saw some incredible happenings. Hickey was in charge of the first Mike the Tiger, and I’ll be honest, I was a bit scared what might happen when he would bring him over and let him roam around my decks and splash in my water.
Each year, they’d use me for the state swim meet. Hickey would tell the kids if they won their race, they’d get a swimming scholarship. That meant having a job as a lifeguard, but that would pay your way to LSU. He gave them a job and a place to live. Believe it or not, they lived in the boiler room and the locker rooms. LSU swimmers continued to do so until the ’70s.
Hickey could drink a Coke underwater. One time at one of the shows the kids poured out his Coke and put whiskey in the bottle. There he was, chugging it down. That woke him up. The kids loved Hickey but he wasn’t that thrilled at them loving each other. One of my favorite stories about myself was in the State-Times on May 10, 1949. The headline read, “Smooching Is Banned at LSU Swimming Pool.” The lead: “Cupid’s arrow has been banned from the Huey P. Long swimming pool at LSU. W.G. Higginbotham, pool manager, said yesterday that “smooching’ or any related form of romancing will not be tolerated in the pool. “The lovebirds who continue to bill and coo in violation of pool rules will receive free billing of their amorous actions — via a public address system which has been set up.” And on and on, but if they only knew. They could have filmed a couple of X-rated movies here in the ’60s and ’70s.
The clown shows and fraternity/sorority shows that people saw were quite extravagant — fireworks and all. I used to pack the crowds in. Before they put that stupid bubble up in the ’70s, my light towers were about 40 feet high and the clowns would dive off them, having to clear the deck to hit the pool. They would get the towers to swing back and forth and then jump. The clowns were wild. In a 1958 show, Al Tramont was wearing suspenders that accidentally slipped down and caught on a tower. It jerked him back up and he grabbed hold of the tower. He looked down at the people and said, “Fooled you, didn’t I?” He fixed his suspenders and dove in. I doubt if any of those laughing people realized how close he came to landing in their laps.
The ’30s were something, especially with those great big dances they’d have at the Field House. The kids would take their walks out by me. Dub Robinson, Johnny’s father, knows me well. He taught a lot of lessons here. He took a few walks at night, too, and laughed when reminded of that smooching story. “Well, we did a little of it,” he said. “When my wife and I were courting, we’d have a dance and go out and promenade around the swimming pool. That would get you pretty far back and you’d have a little quiet.”
Things weren’t always quiet. Ever have a couple hundred kids from a day camp screaming in your ear? Or listen to those water polo players yell at each other? Or be the focus of a maddeningly loud rock-and-roll party? In the ’70s, the swimmers used to have some outrageous parties. My favorite was the tie party, where everyone wore a tie — but little else.
The ’40s were also special. I remember a junior-high-aged kid named Bill Bankhead and his buddies sneaking in. I was glad to see Bankhead, though, because he would take good care of me later on — he later became aquatics director and still loves to talk about me.
“It was the biggest thing I’d ever seen,” Bankhead said. “I couldn’t imagine a swimming pool being that big.” But I was — almost as long as Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal– and I was getting plenty of use.
They taught soldiers to swim in me and sent them off to war, regardless of the time of year, so in 1947 Hickey decided to keep me open all year round. Swimming classes, however, were held in the first half of the fall semester or the second half of the spring. Usually just varsity swimmers and eventually age-group swimmers braved the mid-winter air.
Hickey coached some pretty good swimmers. One I remember was Bob Percy, who was All-America in the 1940s. There were others, too, but LSU didn’t really start keeping good swimming records until the team got serious as a varsity sport in 1968. The ’50s were relatively non-eventful for me. It might have been in the ’50s that they filled in some of my deep end, but I can’t remember. I used to be 15 feet deep; now I’m only 9.
Incidentally, there’s a tunnel underneath me. People go down there once in a while to check me over. I appreciate it, but I think they’re nuts. It’s like a cave or a dungeon under there. I’m actually an above-ground metal pool that’s been plastered over a lot.
By the way, they originally planned to put salt water in me, but realized that would never have worked. I’m glad, because I’m sure the kids and I wouldn’t have liked the taste.
Kids were zany in the ’50s. I’m sure Bankhead remembers the time a few of his fellow students rigged an outboard motor to that 12-foot wooden flat-bottom boat they used for lifesaving classes. That was the one that had written on its bottom, “Hang on, I’ll float.”
One night the kids spent a few hours running that boat in me, spreading motor oil everywhere. So they drained me and let most of my water out so they could clean. Hickey came in the next morning, saw it half full, and freaked out. They told him I sprung a leak. I never told.
While the ’50s were more or less quiet, the ’60s were anything but. I became a social barometer and rather lonely for a while. My problems started in June, 1964, when there was a big-time earthquake in Alaska. Right after, I sprung a massive leak and many blamed the earthquake. On June 25, Dr. John A. Hunter, LSU president, said that when I re-opened, I was only going to be used for lessons and not by the general public. It was no coincidence that just two weeks earlier, LSU admitted blacks for the first time. The students were on my side and by the middle of July were protesting with petitions to have me reopened. They were sweltering in the mid-summer heat but I was to be of no relief that summer. Finally, on April 15, 1965, Chancellor Cecil G. Taylor said I could have fun again.
On April 20, I reopened without incident. A week later, the annual LSU Bengalette Water Show, which featured water ballet, was held in conjunction with the intrafraternity swim meet. The highlight of that show, and pretty ironic in retrospect, was a young lady doing a routine to the song, “Black Magic.”
Hickey finally retired in 1961. He was replaced for a while by John Hicks, who gave way to Bankhead. Hickey died soon after, I’m sad to say. Bankhead and his buddies did some goofy things, like suspend a high-wire and trapeze across me. Bankhead never made it all the way across.
“I got halfway and then would fall,” he said, “but you had to clear about eight feet of deck to get to the pool.”
A lot of guys through the years would dive over that deck into me. Loonies.
When Carl Maddox was the LSU athletic director, he was always thinking of ways to make me better.
“We didn’t have enough money to build a new swimming pool,” said Maddox, who was able to improve many of the other facilities on campus.
In ’69, he thought about building a moveable cover that would slide back, but it would have cost half a million dollars. They spent a lot of money on me in the ’60s. I cracked up a bit, and got new paint in 1969. Layne Jorgenson was named varsity coach in 1968, and two years later gave way to Ivan Harless. Harless, a physical education teacher, coached both the men and women, but gave up the men after a couple of years when Stickles came in. Harless took over the men’s team when Stickles left in 1980. Two years later he quit and his assistant, Scott Woodburn, took over both teams.
The bubble was first proposed in 1974. They figured it would cost about $60,000 and would last around 10 years. Ha! There were days it didn’t last 10 minutes.
Even when the bubble stayed up — and it was falling down a few times a year — there were problems. The fumes from the chlorine were terrible. Sometimes the swimmers just couldn’t take it and had to get out. They tried radiant heaters, but it would make me look like a steambath.
Maddox today says matter-of-factly, “It wasn’t the best situation in the world.”
The bubble finally went up in 1975, about five years after they started heating my water. That was nice. At least when it was cold, the kids wouldn’t mind getting in my water. Before the heat, well, they called me some nasty names.
Before that bubble went up, and then during the times it was down, winter-time swimming was flat-out cold. My water may have been warm — when the heater worked, of course — but there was nothing I could do about that damp, cold Louisiana air.
Dennis Lowe is an artist for the Morning Advocate. He swam for LSU in the late ’70s.
“Oh, man, you had to run from the locker room to the pool,” Lowe said.
He said morning workouts were the worst. I felt sorry for the kids having to take the plunge at 6 a.m. when it was 30 degrees out. One time it snowed. Must have been in 1973. It felt neat, all those cold little snowflakes. Stickles ran up on the balcony and made snowballs and started throwing them at the kids.
Stickles, a Californian who was a world-record-holding swimmer at Indiana, had some characters on his teams. I remember one time he put up a sign telling the kids there were three a.m. workouts that week. The next day, Tommy Rastin got up at 2:45 a.m. and got on his motorcycle and came on over. There was no one here, of course. Even I laughed at that one. Tommy scared us pretty bad one time. He was trying to see how many laps he could do underwater. Stickles had to save him — even pounded his heart to get him going. Tommy, I’m pleased to say, is one of the many who still comes to see me. He and his water polo team play here a lot, although some nights my fog is so thick right above the water you can’t see the ball.
Stickles’ swimmers had the same problem.
“I’d see guys disappear into the fog,” Stickles said. “I’d assume they were going all the way down and back, but I couldn’t see.”
The kids would hide everywhere. I used to have an old wooden bulkhead that you could get under and stay in an air pocket. That was a favorite trick of Ricky Meador’s. He was probably the best swimmer to ever train in me. Meador, who has pool records that will never be broken, kept me from suffocating one day. The bubble collapsed in my middle and was starting to take in water. Ricky grabbed his hunting knife, put it in his teeth, and breast-stroked out to the middle and starting cutting holes in the bubble. The water drained out and the bubble went back up. It was great. I guess I owe him one.
Ah, the bubble.
Acoustics under the bubble were amazing. You could be five feet from someone and not hear them talking to you, but you could hear a conversation going on 50 yards away.
Oh, that stupid bubble. One time it collapsed right before the conference meet, so Stickles sent the kids up early so they’d have a place to practice. Another time they had to practice at a local country club for a week. The bubble went down for good in a storm in October 1983.
“It got caught on the boards because one of the seams ripped,” Woodburn said. “We asked the buildings and grounds people to take it off and take it off carefully so we could get it repaired. But they just took a knife and cut it.” I was glad to see it go. I know it gets cold here and all, but like Lowe said, “We’d always have the best tans. There’s nothing like swimming outside.” There really isn’t.
“The pool hurt in trying to recruit,” Stickles said. “But I enjoyed the pool. We got two separate pools. I enjoyed swimming outdoors. The weather, for the most part, was tolerable … I’d much rather swim outdoors any day of the year that the weather wasn’t prohibitive. The atmosphere was great.”
But we can still tell some stories of times it wasn’t. Like once in the early ’70s they had to hold up a meet because it rained so hard it made the boards bounce up and down. Or holding meets on a really, really cold day. “I remember one day we had a swim meet, and it was freezing,” Woodburn said. “It was 30 degrees. We were cooking hot dogs, it was miserable. But we had the swim meet. Everybody would huddle in the locker room and went out for the event and it was almost like a Le Mans start.”
Woodburn is from Connecticut, but up north they don’t swim in outdoor pools in winter. He had one home meet in a sleet storm. “It was like a comic strip,” he said. “Starting about December on, you had absolutely no chance to accomplish anything.”
Woodburn was the last coach I’ll probably ever have. He quit coaching a year ago. The new LSU coach is Sam Freas. He brought his Arkansas team here once, and did we get the best of him.
“When our first swimmer dove in and scraped his knees on the bottom, I knew it wasn’t going to be a real fast meet,” Freas said.
Nor a good one for Freas and Arkansas, which lost a very controversial meet in which the timing system failed a few times. Freas went sort of bonkers, because he thought he won. He eventually heard from the LSU athletic director.
“Paul Dietzel wrote me a letter afterwards asking me never to return to Louisiana State University.”
Of course, Sam came back. He’s come to see me a couple of times — even played water polo with the boys one night — but mostly Sam hangs out at the natatorium.
“It’s not a true competitive pool, and of course a lot aren’t,” Stickles said. “But we had to make due. There were some aspects of it that were good. It’s a deck-level pool which tends to be a little faster than one with sides on it. It’s something I know wasn’t planned when it was built, because they didn’t have any conception of that then.”
Maybe not, but then … About two years ago an elderly man came by and introduced himself to Elaine Bird, who is in charge of me now through the Office of Leisure Sports. She’s the one who decided to take down my diving boards two years ago. Anyway, the man said he designed me and wanted to see if I was still in use. I couldn’t remember his name, but it was nice of him to drop in.
What does my future hold?
“It’s not really been forthrightly talked about,” Bird said. “However, when I go and say the pipes are leaking underneath and I’ve got a new wiring problem, and if it’s a major expense, they’re saying to me, “What do you think is the life of the pool?’
“Whereas four years ago they didn’t do that, they said, “OK, let’s repair it.’ “
Don’t like that talk, but fortunately I’ve been holding up pretty well lately. After all, I am 54 years old, and there are those who figure I’m coming down the home stretch. That may be, but that’s OK.
Just think how many people know how to swim because of me. Just think how many suntans I’m responsible for. And better still, just imagine how many love stories were started here. Heck, I never wanted any part of that racism stuff that went on in the ’60s. The best part of my life has been the people who have come through here, not just the ones from Louisiana but from all over.
Some of the foreigners and Yankees have been the best swimmers, you know. I hear through the pipes, the natatorium over there is a beauty, and to be honest, I’m kind of glad some youngster is taking care of the big stuff. Me, I’ll be happy spending the rest of my days with swim lessons and sunbathers. If they want to fix me up some, fine.
I think Lowe has the right idea.
“I wish they’d spend a lot of money and fix it up. Design-wise,it’s pretty interesting. All those columns that go down. It’s really Italian — neo-Palladian architecture. They could use different colors and they could stucco the walls and it would be nice.”
Stucco? Whatever. I’ve lasted a lot longer than my namesake ever could have imagined. I’m sure he would have been proud.
Kind of cracks me up, if you know what I mean.