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By Jake Howard
Things haven’t been the same at the pool lately. The water’s still wet and the laps still long, but we’ve been missing our friend Ernie Polte. Over the years—over a lot of years—Ernie’s been the tie that binds our little aquatic world together. In no uncertain terms, 90-year-old Ernie’s the man.
It must have been about 10 or 12 years ago that I stumbled into Ernie’s sphere of influence, and I’m grateful to say that my life’s never been the same since. At the time, I was working at SURFER Magazine, and after a college water polo career and a stint as an ocean lifeguard, I noticed that the transition to a desk job hadn’t exactly served my midsection well. Trading burrito lunches at Las Golondrinas for swim sessions at the Ole Hanson Beach Club, at noon I started bee-lining it from the SURFER offices in San Juan Capistrano down PCH to the pool.
One day, after knocking myself back into some semblance of shape, I saw Ernie on the pool deck. “You’re becoming quite a regular around here,” he jested.
That seemed like the highest praise possible from the humble man who was obviously revered and adored by the most elite watermen in town. Originally hailing from Chicago, after being discharged from military service in 1947, Ernie attended Fullerton College, where he played water polo and set swimming records. He worked as an LA County Lifeguard, and when he graduated from college he took up residence as the swim and water polo coach at Fullerton, where he also taught scuba classes.
“That was the start of it all back in those days, it was all very small,” Ernie once explained. He would go on to compete in over 200 ocean swims (and never finished) worse than third in his age group.
Until earlier this year, when he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, Ernie was still at the pool every day, still fit, cracking one-liners and delighting everyone who had the pleasure of crossing his path. One day I saw him sitting on the edge of the pool, dangling his feet in the water, soaking in the sunshine.
“Time to get in, Ernie,” I joked.
“You know, every time I swim and it’s a nice day like this, I like to take a minute to take a breath. You have to slow yourself down sometimes,” he said. “We really are lucky to live somewhere as beautiful as this.”
Ninety years into a life well-lived and he was still incredibly grateful for just a few minutes of peace and solace in the sun. Therein lies the beauty of Ernie and how he touched so many lives—appreciate the small stuff, appreciate every moment you have, share the joy and splendor with those around you, and don’t be afraid to laugh a little.
As I write this, dear, old Ernie’s sadly gone on hospice care. He’s still sharp as a tack and his wit is as classic as ever, but cancer has seized upon his body. Thankfully, his soul and integrity remain resolute.
At the pool the other day, our regular swim crew was talking about making sure we all paid him a visit and kept him company. Every week in this space I write a riff about the goings on in our local surf community, but this week I’d like to say, “thank you, Ernie. I’m sure I’m safe in speaking for everyone who ever jumped in the pool or ocean with you over the last 60 or 70 years, the wisdom you’ve shared, the time you’ve spent, the lessons you’ve imparted, the positive role model you’ve been, thank you so very much for all of it. But more than anything, thanks for being my friend.”
We should all aspire to live like Ernie.