Friday, Jan 1–Humble Beginnings For Penguin Swim

OCEAN CITY — As the area welcomes in 2010, one of the most beloved New Year’s Day traditions will celebrate its 16th year, but, surprisingly, only a handful of people know the origins of the AGH Penguin Swim.

Though the Penguin Swim has become synonymous with local restaurant Bull on the Beach as an informal headquarters as well as being the most well-known annual fundraiser for Atlantic General Hospital (AGH), few people, even those closest to the event, actually recall how the benefit got started, or perhaps who came up with the idea that has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the hospital since 1994.

Julie Pendelton, who works in AGH’s medical records department and was actually the first employee ever hired at the Berlin hospital, told The Dispatch on Wednesday that the event was originally pitched to the AGH fundraising foundation back in 1993 by an emergency room physician by the name of Dr. Daniel Carlin.

“As I remember, Dr. Carlin was originally from Massachusetts and he came to us with an idea to do a swim similar to that of the Polar Bear swim that he was used to up north,” said Pendelton. “The first year, I remember I wore the penguin suit and he was dressed in a top hat and a tie and it was such a fun event. I guess it has just taken off from there.”

Pendelton recalls that the first Penguin Swim took place on the beach in front of the Carousel Hotel and only saw a handful of swimmers and spectators. She admits that she never expected the event to grow to the size that it has today.

“Every year there seems to be more people doing it, and it has become quite a tradition for people around the area,” said Pendelton. “Last year I was the oldest person that swam at 76, and my daughter and my granddaughter got in the water with me, so we had three generations in the water last year.”

AGH Vice President of Public Relations Toni Keiser said that the event started out humbly for the first few years, but really exploded when it moved in front of the Princess Royale on 92nd Street and local restaurateur Phil Houck got involved.

“Once Phil and the staff of the Bull on the Beach got involved, it really took the event to the next level,” said Kaiser. “There was a few hundred people in the first few years, and now there are sometimes close to thousands of swimmers and spectators. Now, everybody wants to get involved and try to raise more money than the Bull team does.”

Houck, who says the Bull on the Beach has raised almost a quarter of a million dollars for the hospital since the event’s inception, said that his involvement with the event happened informally.

“My son in law, Tom [Knopp, general manager of the Bull on the Beach] and a few of the other bartenders had heard about the event and I think almost out of boredom wanted to do something memorable to bring in the new year,” said Houck. “It started from there and has grown into our biggest fundraising event of the year, and probably, from a business standpoint, one of our biggest days of the year.”

Knopp, who has swam every year since 1994, said that this year’s Penguin Swim might bring out only the most dedicated swimmers as the forecast is calling for frigid temperatures.

“We might see only the truest penguins this year, as it’s going to be awfully cold,” said Knopp, “but every year people come out, and it continues to grow. The really neat thing is that we’ve been seeing a lot of kids and families going in together in the past few years, so it really is becoming a tradition.”

Keiser has seen that same trend in recent years, saying that college kids have come from far distances to swim in the event, and the age of the so-called penguins continues to expand on both ends of the spectrum.

“We’ve had young swimmers and old swimmers, and it just amazes me how this event has grown into such a family tradition for people, and isn’t just a fundraising event,” she said.

Last year, AGH raised $67,000 on New Year’s Day, and event organizers say that the goal is for $75,000 this year.

AGH President Michael Franklin said that through community leadership, the event has been able to grow almost as quickly as the hospital itself.

“This event helps us further the services we can provide to the area, and only through this type of community leadership from people like Phil [Houck] and [event chair] Patricia [Ilczuk-Lavanceau], we can help ease our capital needs while bringing in the new year in a very fun way,” he said.

Franklin said that although the money raised is never allotted to just one particular area of the hospital, he did note that upcoming projects that the hospital must embark on will be quite costly and the money raised on Friday will certainly help.

“Soon, we are going to have to comply with new legislation that is requiring hospitals to essentially go paperless and put all hospital records on a computer database,” said Franklin. “That alone is going to cost anywhere from $5-10 million. We have a growing community and we need to make sure that we can grow as fast as it does. Events like the Penguin Swim are a big part of why we continue to advance.”

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