Three legendary Malibu lifeguards retire after nearly 60 years of service

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On his last day, 77-year-old Ed Heinrich stands at his tower on his last day after 58 years. Photo by Terry Heinrich 

Ed, Jerry, and Dick Heinrich started a dynasty of lifeguards at Zuma Beach

On Thursday, June 29, Zuma Beach’s oldest lifeguard stowed his rescue can, lowered the flag, and locked Zuma tower 4, the same tower he opened on his first shift ever in 1965 as a new 18-year-old Los Angeles County Lifeguard.

Ed Heinrich, the oldest of the Heinrich dynasty of Los Angeles County lifeguards, retired after 58 years keeping watch over Malibu beaches and saving lives.

Heinrich described his last day on the job he’s had for nearly six decades as “bittersweet.”

“I know I can still continue to qualify,” said Heinrich, now on the cusp of turning 77. “I’m pretty strong, but I just thought it’s time. It’s been a big part of my life. All these years I’ve been really proud to be an LACO ocean lifeguard, particularly at Zuma.”

Ed was the first Heinrich to lifeguard. Younger brother Jerry followed in his footsteps, and then came their youngest brother Dick. All three of the eldest Heinrichs are retiring. Unfortunately, Jerry, 73, broke his leg recently, and Dick, 71, broke his clavicle. They never had a last day as Ed did when the Baywatch boat sprayed its water cannon toward tower 4 and lifeguard trucks rolled up on the sand for a farewell. But Jerry came for Ed’s sendoff and his brother claimed, “I think he was more emotional than I was.”

The brothers are in great shape due to daily workouts, including swimming, running, biking, weightlifting, and “continuity,” according to Ed. Ed also stays active as a ski and snowboard instructor. “I want to die young as late as possible,” is one of Ed’s favorite sayings, along with, “Adults are just children who forgot how to play,” according to his daughter Wendy.

Ed has worked seasonally for years. Even as a full-time Delta Airlines pilot based in Utah, Ed continued to work his schedule around shifts at Zuma because the need for lifeguards is strong in late summer when the younger guards return to school. He retired as a pilot more than a decade ago but always made himself available. “I like to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said of his philosophy.

Ed’s son Brad followed in his footsteps as both a lifeguard and Delta pilot. Jerry’s two sons Chris (retired) and Tim, and Dick’s son, Kyle, all became Zuma lifeguards too. Ed’s nephew Kyle became his supervisor. There have been days when all seven Heinrichs would be working the beach.

Ed says he gets a personal satisfaction helping people.

“I like helping the public,” he said. “We in lifeguarding say, ‘We can do something that not very many people can do; make rescues in big surf.’”

Ed has probably made close to 3,000 rescues in his long career. The three oldest Heinrichs have probably come to the aid of swimmers facing trouble more than 10,000 times. Dick may get credit for the most. That’s a lot of rescues, but Zuma is known for its big surf.

“It’s notorious around the world for rip currents,” Ed said. “You need to be a pretty good swimmer. Just about all of us swim competitively.”

Ed, Jerry, and Dick Heinrich grew up in Glendora. Ed applied to be a pool lifeguard, but found ocean lifeguarding not only paid better but “it sounded a lot more exotic.”

He was only able to work at Zuma more than 60 miles away because back in the day there was a bunkhouse for more than a dozen lifeguards.

“There was a real esprit de corps, a camaraderie that doesn’t exist anywhere,” Ed recalled. “Malibu lifeguards, particularly Zuma, we’re a cohesive unit. We all work together. If you don’t do a good job, your peers let you know because they’re your buddies. You don’t want to let them down.

“Malibu’s reputation is we have the best lifeguards in the world. I know that for a fact. We’ve had guys that were lifeguards in New York who say, ‘We’re the New York Yankees of lifeguards.’ The group at Zuma tend to be the best lifeguards because we have to be because of the surf conditions. It’s not just a job. Keeping the beach safe, it’s personal. We take ownership of that safety. We want everyone to go home safely. I’ve been very fortunate. I can’t describe how impactful it’s been to my life.”

Ed, Jerry, and Dick Heinrich, who have all been married to their wives for roughly 50 years each, are now officially retired, but the Heinrich legacy continues. Ed’s 13-year-old grandson is in the Malibu Junior Lifeguard program.