Bill Russell is the man behind the magic of New Paltz’s Moriello Pool

Bill Russell and Tom Plitsch are overseeing operations at Moriello Pool this summer. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

There’s nothing that quite signifies the beginning or the end of summer in New Paltz like the opening and closing of its longstanding public watering hole, the Moriello Pool. It’s where the majority of Paltzonians have learned how to swim, dive, walk-not-run and play Marco Polo, tetherball and sharks-and-minnows, or had their children and grandchildren become versed in all of that chlorine-laden, ice-pop-staining, sun-scorching summer skillsets that are rites of passage for any local aquatic enthusiast.

The man behind the magic of Moriello is the one and only Bill Russell, a lifelong member of the pool, the director of this public water carnival for the past 20-plus years, as well as the individual responsible for opening, closing, troubleshooting, Supergluing, plugging, unplugging, lifting, lugging, lifeguard training, CPR-mandating, sprinkling, grass-growing, chemically treating and operating this seven-acre pool and park for all to enjoy.

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Although he has threatened for at least a decade that “This will be my last year,” he is still back behind the captain’s wheel – or in this case, the air-conditioned guard office, making sure all is well at 15 Mulberry Street, even after his retirement from teaching.

While it takes a small army of local youth to lifeguard, work the gate, keep Russell’s grass in good condition, the playground mulched, the chlorine levels not too low or too high, the hairballs and crusty Band-aids vacuumed from the bottom of the pool, the garbage cans washed, the bathrooms cleaned and unclogged, ultimately it is Russell who is the great conductor of this summer symphony.

“I remember when the pool was in the lower lot,” he says, hair now grey, beard finally shaven, worn Seahawk baseball hat shielding the sun from his eyes. “You remember where everyone’s ‘spot’ was. Our family’s spot was where the old retaining wall was, that you’d sit on after they moved the pool up here.”

Russell is referring to when the Moriello Pool moved from the lower lot to the top of the hill in 1971. If there was a time-lapse photograph, one could see the old concrete bowels of the original pool, the cement-block bathhouse, the crumbling retaining wall and remnants of a wire fence, all of which were eventually cleared to make way for a semicircular parking lot that is now lined with large conglomerate rocks, and a civilized paved walkway up to the “new” pool.

“I remember taking lessons at the old pool and whining about being wet and cold and putting my face in the water. But that’s how it happens – and then one day, you realize you’ve learned to swim. I think that’s one thing that I’m most proud of here: how we’ve drownproofed thousands of kids, whether through lessons or the summer rec team [Seahawks] or just by having access to a pool that is professionally lifeguarded.”

Not only has Moriello Pool provided drownproofing for thousands of children, but it also has supported competitive swimmers, lap swimmers and those rehabbing an injury, provided exercise for all ages including aqua-aerobics and master swimmers, as well as being a safe place to immerse oneself in cool water and bring their joy level up and their body temperature down.

To Russell’s credit, he is a stickler about all of his lifeguarding staff having their certifications up to date, their skills tested in weekly “drill sessions” that he and/or his assistant director Tom Plitsch oversee to make sure that these youngsters are sharp, ready and able to save lives if necessary. During his tenure there has never been a drowning, despite hundreds of thousands of people having jumped into that water. “We’ve been lucky, but it also takes a lot of work and training,” he said. “We’ve had a few close calls. It was two years ago, I think, when we had a gentleman go into cardiac arrest while swimming his laps. My guards recognized he was in trouble, responded, got him out, did CPR and he pulled through.”

As a former young pool brat and Seahawk swimmer, a mother of three young children who are all now employed at the Moriello Pool as lifeguards, I can attest to the seriousness that Russell imparts to his staff. They’re not to talk to anyone while lifeguarding; they’re to blow whistles if rules are broken and set off their emergency response signal if any type of danger is sensed, in or out of the water.

“We have a great group of kids here,” he said, looking out over the various guards aged 15 to 24 years old. “They’re kind, they’re smart, they work hard. For a lot of them, this is their first job, and it’s an important one.” Not only do they learn to save lives, but also to scrub toilets. Besides teaching a large portion of the community the lifesaving and lifelong skill of swimming, Moriello Pool is also a large summer employer of water-friendly youth. “We have 50 employees this year, with 27 that are full-time,” he says, noting that many of the lifeguards he has on staff now are kids of former Moriello lifeguards. “It’s definitely a family affair,” he says with a laugh.

Other things his employees also learn are Russell’s sarcastic sense of humor, his thoughts on political correctness, his ‘back-in-the-day’ musings, his almost-obsessive caretaking of the grass, the need for the front gate till to be balanced exactly, his enjoyment of having squeamish kids scrub garbage and unclog toilets and, of course, his gift of gab. But mostly, what everyone comes to realize, if not at first, is that Russell cares and grows to have a certain affection for those who have worked for him and with him over the years.

Safety is the utmost importance on Russell’s three-page printed list of “operating instructions” for the pool, but operating a complicated and at-times-temperamental system of pumps, valves, filters, liners, gutters and drains is no easy task. It’s hard for Russell to take a vacation, as he is often called or he can even be Facetimed to fix a problem that could potentially shut the pool down, if not taken care of immediately. “You name a time of night and I’ve been here fixing something,” he says, noting that he has spent many an all-nighter at the pool attempting to get a pump running, a valve to shut off or a filter to start acting like a filter.

Although Russell has more institutional knowledge of the history of the pool than any other person alive, as well as a manuallike recall of how every piece of machinery works, it wasn’t as if being a pool director was anything he ever set out to do, and certainly never believed he’d be doing this long. “I started working here in 1979,” he says. “At some point I also coached the Seahawks for a few years. We’ve always had a summer swim team, ever since the pool was constructed. I worked at the IBM pool in Poughkeepsie for a few years, and really all I knew how to do was to check the chlorine levels and call the plumber if there was a problem.”

He had graduated with a teaching degree, was doing substitute teaching work and trying to make extra money as a “coach of anything: Seahawks, soccer, baseball…whatever,” when he was approached by the former Moriello Pool director, noting that there was going to be a vacancy and asking did he want to apply for the job. “For whatever reason, they thought I was qualified, although all we did back then was throw in big tablets or buckets of chlorine and hope for the best,” he says with a laugh. “I had never thought to myself, ‘I really want to be a pool director,’ or ‘I really want to work at a public pool all summer for the next 30-plus years.’ It just happened. And now it’s just what I do and what I know.”

Having been hired as the pool director in 1986, Russell remembers when the Village took over the pool from a private group of residents, and then when the Town and Village joined forces to help fund and operate the pool. “The Village had a large matching grant in the late 1990s to renovate the pool and put in new filtration systems and gutters and a bathhouse, as the old bathhouse was falling apart,” he recalls. “We were supposed to have it done before the pool opened; but as we know, that didn’t happen.” The pool renovation and the bathhouse project went over-budget and over-schedule, and they lost an entire summer with the pool being unable to open. All of this was hard on the community, but most of all Russell, who was trying to answer to everyone, including the Town and Village, the community, his employees, the contractor, the grantwriter, all kinds of ad-hoc committees; but at the end of the day, he just wanted the pool to open.

“We did get a nice renovated pool, but the bathhouse didn’t happen. We had to rent trailers and porta-potties, and eventually we did get a new bathhouse, but it took six years.” Those were the lean years, when revenue was down, as there was no bathhouse or concession stand, and only the tried-and-true kept coming. Russell stayed the course and steadied the ship, and eventually, once the bathhouse was built and the pool opened on time for the past several years (again, due in large part to Russell himself going every day after work or during retirement to ensure that the pool was ready to open by Memorial Day), revenue and memberships did climb back up.

“We have over 300 family memberships, 50 single memberships, 40 senior citizen memberships this year, and we have no less than 35,000 people come through this gate in the summer.” When you look at the numbers of people, the vast majority of them New Paltz residents, going in and out of the pool, it’s astounding. The pool is in operation — whether it’s for the summer recreation swim team or masters’ swim, learn-to-swim lessons, adult aqua aerobics, swim meets, SOS 4 Kids and regularly scheduled community swim time — for no fewer than 100 hours a week. “This is not the type of place you just shut off the lights and lock the doors and go home,” muses Russell. “You’re always on call.”

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Because of his retirement from his teaching career, two of his three kids having graduated from college, Russell said that he did what he promised he’d never do: “I was here every day beginning in March to make sure this place opened.” Before that he was also with his dog, Kiki, and taking advantage, for the first time in his life since he was a kid, of the Mohonk Preserve. “I wanted to explore what was right in my back yard, and I finally had the time to do it.” Once he does the myriad of things that need to be done in order to close the pool down this week, and doing his best to secure the place for the winter, Russell plans on taking his hiking boots and canine traveling companion through the Minnewaska trails and carriage roads.

As the YMCA Camp Wiltmeet buddy check happens, guards punch in and out and people poke their heads in to say “Hi,” Russell and Plitsch go over their own history together. “I swam Seahawks and began lifeguarding here in 2008,” says Plitsch. “And I’ve been the co-director for the past seven years. I enjoy it. I spent so many fond years here as a kid, and then Bill hired me and eventually, I became an assistant director. It has an incredible community feel to the place. You know a lot of the members and watch the kids grow up and learn to become strong swimmers. I like working with the head guards and the staff and just knowing that we’re helping to provide a really important community asset.”

If there’s a valuable “community asset” here, it’s also in the job that Russell has done and continues to do year after year. Although he’s immune to flattery, everyone knows that he is Oz behind the curtain. He’s such a fixture that you almost do not even know he’s there, pulling all the strings, greasing all of the wheels and turning all of the switches on and off to make sure that summer arrives each year in the form of a pool for all to enjoy. Caps off to you, Russell!