If Dave Bowen walks around the Neshannock Township pool looking like the happiest guy in the world, it’s because he just may be.
“Where else can you be outside all day in the sun, with no shirt and hang out with the most awesome people around,” he said. “I definitely have the best job in the world.”
The 62-year-old Neshannock Township resident says it is a labor of love that has turned from lifeguarding at the pool to serving as pool manager for the past 35 years.
Bowen graduated from Neshannock High in 1976 and received his teaching degree in physical education from Youngstown State University in 1984. Aquatics was part of his degree and he received his lifeguard certification hoping to land a job as a lifeguard over the summers. He went on to coach gymnastics in Youngstown before serving as a physical education teacher for 5 1/2 years at the Fairhaven School in Niles.
When the physical education job opened at Neshannock in 1993, Bowen was hired. He also served as a junior high and varsity football coach for many years.
In addition, he ran the youth basketball program at the Y Zone in the evenings and its Athletes of Tomorrow program.
“I was always doing something,” he said. “I’m not a guy to sit around.”
One of those somethings was to lifeguard at the Neshannock pool, where he went on to be named manager in 1987.
“Since you have summers basically off when you’re a teacher, it fit my schedule. My wife Cindy gave me a nudge because I wasn’t sure, though.
“I was a little worried about the time commitment at first, but she told me, ‘just do it. Don’t think that far down the road, try it and see if it works.’ “
And 35 years later, it is obvious that Cindy knew what she was talking about.
Bowen handles the majority of maintenance work, with a bit of help from Don McManus. That includes cutting the grass, hiring the 15 lifeguards that the pool utilizes each summer, most of whom are high school and college students, and repairing things that break down like the pool’s small chemical pumps.
In 1992, he oversaw a $300,000-plus renovation of the pool, which added about 50 feet as it went from a T-shape to Olympic size.
His day usually starts around 8 a.m. when the lifeguards conduct youth swim lessons. He is there until about 9 p.m. The pool is open from noon to 8:30 p.m. daily. From 11 a.m. to noon is a fitness lap swim. During regular pool hours, non-adult swimmers must exit for 15 minutes each hour for the adult swim.
Bowen’s work starts at the end of March and goes through Labor Day, although he said there are talks to keep the pool open for two additional weeks because of the late start this year.
Friday nights are movie nights, with PG movies such as “Spiderman,” “The Sandlot “(Bowen’s personal favorite) and the Marvel movies shown. Movies are free for members and the snack bar is open.
When he becomes short on lifeguards as college students dwindle late in the season, Bowen jumps into the chair. His boyish looks and the sense of fun he wears on his sleeve are a favorite among lifeguards and pool-goers alike.
“I tell everyone I’m the county’s oldest lifeguard,” Bowen said with a chuckle. “But I still enjoy getting up there.
“My lifeguards keep me young. We laugh a lot.”
Lifeguard Anne Papa, who was sanitizing chairs under Bowen’s watchful eye, yelled, “Mr. B’s freaking awesome,” in Bowen’s direction.
Neshannock graduate and Westminster College junior Mario Manos has been lifeguarding for Bowen for three years, following in the footsteps of his three older brothers.
“Mr. Bowen is the hardest-working person I know,” Manos said. “He is a great problem solver. If something goes wrong or breaks, he just knows what to do. He always stays calm.
“He’s great to work for, too. Everyone just loves him.”
Board president Mark DeVincentis has known Bowen since he was his gym instructor and football coach prior to DeVincentis’s 1995 graduation from Neshannock High.
“I was just thinking the other day that we are about to celebrate 60 years with the pool next year and Dave has been here two-thirds of that time. His dedication, passion and leadership have allowed the pool association to be in a great place.
“Dave has a true pulse on our patrons,” he added. “He knows them all and everyone knows him and loves him.”
This has been a challenging summer for Bowen. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the pool opening from Memorial Day weekend until June 1. Maximum occupancy is 1,000, so 500 patrons are permitted inside the gates at once.
“We follow all CDC guidelines,” he said. “We spray the chairs every hour or when someone gets up. We ask our patrons to fold the backs of their chairs down when they are leaving so we know we can disinfect. We have masks available out front. The first week people used them, but I’m seeing less and less now.
“Our girls out front do head counts as people come in and out so we make sure we don’t exceed 500, but the most we’ve had in here this summer so far is 293. Our chairs are kept 6 feet apart, but as the day goes on, you see the kids pushing them closer together. We do everything we can to stress the social distancing.”
There are currently 223 memberships, including some from out of town whose pools did not open.
“We have some from places like Ellwood City,” he said. “We’re happy to accommodate people if they need a place to swim.”
Bowen, who retired from teaching at Neshannock in 2016, said he has no plans to retire for now, but knows that the end is looming. He and Cindy want to spend more time with their kids, Kyrie Ferry, Sal Smith, Jerad Smith and Vince Smith and their three grandchildren. Sal and Jerad were lifeguards themselves at the pool.
“Cindy wants to move south and she’s been patient all these years when I was barely home for all those months, 12 hours a day,” he said. “We have grandkids now and I really would like to spend time with them and our kids.”
DeVincentis is hoping that doesn’t happen anytime soon.
“He’s our rock. I dread the day that he retires,” DeVincentis said.
“It will be really hard to give up a job like this. It’s really not a job, it’s just one enjoyable day after another,” Bowen said.