OCEAN CITY — The sun set on the “endless summer” for a local legend last weekend with the passage of a former Ocean City elected official, lifeguard and surfing icon.
George Feehley, 87, passed away last Saturday at the Coastal Hospice at the Lake in Salisbury, but his legendary exploits and indomitable spirit live on. Feehley served on the Ocean City Council for 12 years including two as council president from 1994 to 1996 and was instrumental in a period of growth in the resort. Already a Baltimore high school sports legend, Feehley arrived in Ocean City for good in the mid-1940s and quickly became a fixture on the north end of the beach at the outskirts of the resort, the corporate limits of which only extended to about 40th Street or so.
Feehley officially joined the Ocean City Beach Patrol in 1946, but was already patrolling the north end of the town before that. Shortly thereafter, residents in the area north of Ocean City, which was just a part of unincorporated Worcester County at the time, asked Feehley to be the lifeguard at the beach and he agreed on the condition he could also run the beach umbrella and chair concession.
While his athletic exploits were his claim to fame, many local residents remember Feehley for his time in public service. Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan memorialized Feehley during the council work session on Tuesday.
“George served this community for a number of years, as a councilman for 12 years, and was elected and served as council president from 1994 to 1996,” he said. “George was very active in the community and moved here a long time ago. He was very active in supporting the Ocean City Beach Patrol and actually guarded a portion of the beach in the area of 40th Street on his own for a period of time.”
Meehan said Feehley was instrumental in forwarding a lot of the programs and services the town of Ocean City offers today.
“He was also very active in the 1980s in helping establish the Senior Center in Ocean City and its programs for the seniors,” he said. “He was a successful realtor and successful in other adventures he had tried, as well as a good promoter of Ocean City and supporter of businesses in Ocean City. It is very unfortunate and George will be missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family and all who knew George. We want to thank him for his service to the town of Ocean City.”
While Feehley was an active member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol and a pillar in the resort’s surfing community for years, he spent his winters as a gym teacher in the local school system, most notably at Buckingham Elementary in Berlin.
“Mr. Feehley had a career as a teacher, in fact, he taught my husband back in grade school, so I know he’ll be missed,” said Ocean City Councilwoman Margaret Pillas on Tuesday. “That is what he spent his whole life doing, even on the council, trying to teach citizens, athletes and even surfers. He will be missed. I will miss him.”
While his accomplishments on the City Council were noteworthy in many respects, Feehley is remembered in many circles for his tireless work on behalf of the Beach Patrol and his athletic prowess in numerous regional, national and international lifeguard competitions even late into his life.
“George got involved with the modern Beach Patrol because of his desire to use his athletic abilities in a competitive environment,” said Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin. “I did not know him back when he guarded a beach just north of the town limits, but met him when he joined the Beach Patrol’s chapter of the USLA.”
Arbin said Feehley’s rigorous training regimen provided inspiration to the beach patrol’s much younger members.
“Seeing someone George’s age continue to train and compete was really a motivator and inspired our younger members to try even harder,” he said. “We could always count on George to contribute a large number of team points to our chapter in the National USLA championships and improve our overall team standing.”
While serving on the council, Feehley became a strong advocate for the Beach Patrol, according to Arbin, and helped forge the modern day organization.
“For many years, while George served on the City Council, the beach patrol had a special friend in high places and his influence allowed our team members to compete in major competitive events with the financial support of the town,” he said. “George Feehley has surfed his way into the history of Ocean City and will always be remembered.”
While Feehley was already guarding the north end beach in the late 1940s, it wasn’t until the early 1960s when he took up the latest craze to hit the resort. Ocean City surfing legend Skill Johnson and his brothers Al and Carl are largely credited with introducing surfing to the resort in the 1960s. Johnson, who now resides in Hawaii, said this week Feehley quickly picked up the sport and became a surfing legend in his own right.
“In 1964, the first surf shop in town was at 18th Street, but we always went up to 43rd Street, which was at the end of town limits, to surf and George had a house up there and used to guard the beach,” he said. “He saw us surfing out there and took it up and became a natural from the start. He was an athlete beyond belief.”
Johnson said he and the others in the nascent resort surfing community always marveled at Feehley’s athletic prowess.
“George was a strong man,” he said. “He used to lift weights and he had these 100-pound dumbbells he used to throw up with ease. He was one of the fittest guys I ever met. I first met George at the local premiere of ‘Endless Summer’ at Stephen Decatur High School in 1964. I got a ticket and went in, then I went back out and gave the stub to George.”
Johnson said the Ocean City community won’t soon forget Feehley’s contributions to the resort.
“He’s an Ocean City legend,” he said. “He was one of the coolest guys in Ocean City. He was a true classic and won’t be forgotten.”
Even late in life, Feehley continued to train and compete in several high profile lifeguard competitions. In November, he donated the numerous medals he had one over the years to the Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum. According to an online article published in 2002, Feehley was asked why he continued to train and compete in the lifeguard competitions at his late age.
“It’s what I do,” he said. “While some guys play golf, tennis or go fishing, I compete in lifeguard competitions, mainly because I enjoy doing it. I feel fortunate that I can still get out there and compete.”
Feehley often competed in lifeguard competitions with athletes half his age or younger. He competed in national and international events where the senior divisions stopped at 65, even when he was in his 70s at the time. In 1996, he competed in the world championships in South Africa against a pool of 1,500 athletes from around the globe at the age of 70. He was the oldest member of the U.S. team, but earned a silver medal in rescue board paddling and placed fourth in two other events. A year later, Feehley won two silvers and a bronze at the USLA National Championships in San Diego.
According to legend, he was once in Chicago competing in a lifeguard competition when he was befriended by some Japanese competitors in the same event. When Feehley revealed his age, they all started bowing to him. Whenever they passed Feehley on the beach or at the hotel, they continued to bow, according to Towson University professor and former Ocean City Beach Patrol member Ellworth Boyd, who wrote an extensive article on Feehley in American Lifeguard magazine over a decade ago.
Feehley had also been a member of the Ocean City American Legion Sinepuxent Post 166, the Ocean City Beach Patrol, the Life Saving Association of America, the Ocean City Realtors Association and the Dune Club. A private memorial service will be held by the family at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in his name to the Ocean City Beach Patrol Fund at 109 Dorchester Street, Ocean City, Md. 21842.