Past Treasure of the Month – May 2008

LeRoy Colombo (1905 – 1974)
LeRoy ColomboPhotograph of LeRoy Colombo.

During the month of May, the Rosenberg Library exhibited a championship trophy won by LeRoy Colombo in 1927. Colombo is a legendary figure in Galveston history. During his five-decade career, this deaf lifeguard saved more than 900 lives.

The son of Italian immigrants, Colombo was not born deaf. He lost his hearing around the age of seven after a mysterious illness which was diagnosed at the time as spinal meningitis. As a result, LeRoy Colombo lost his hearing and his ability to speak. He was also paralyzed from the waist down.

Colombo’s brothers worked to rehabilitate LeRoy by dragging him up and down the alley behind their house until he was able to walk on his own two feet again. Swimming also proved to be beneficial in rebuilding the strength of his legs. Because of his hearing disability, Colombo was deemed “ineducable” by the public school system in Galveston and was sent to the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. Colombo became a competitive swimmer at TSD, setting multiple records for speed and distance. After six years at the school, he returned to Galveston.

In 1927, Colombo completed a 15-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico in just eleven and a half hours. LeRoy Colombo’s brother, Cinto, finished the race in second place — three and a half hours behind LeRoy. Muscle cramps and jellyfish stings caused the other four challengers to withdraw from the contest.

The event was sponsored by the Surf Toboggan Club, an elite group of volunteer lifeguards. LeRoy Colombo joined the group in 1921, at the age of fifteen. In order to gain membership into the club, one was required to spend 3 hours and 20 minutes in the Gulf without any swimming aids and without floating on one’s back.

Trophy awarded to Colombo in 1927Trophy awarded to Colombo in 1927 for first place in the Southern Long Distance Swimming Championship,
a 15-mile race in the Gulf of Mexico. It was presented to Colombo by the Hollywood Dinner Club, a famous restaurant
and nightclub run by the Maceo family.

After devoting more than fifty years to saving the lives of others, LeRoy Colombo died in 1974. The citizens of Galveston erected a plaque along the seawall in his honor. In 2006, the Texas School for the Deaf unveiled a new swimming center which was named for LeRoy Colombo.