Part of the excitement of returning to the outdoor pools in Oak Park is seeing a pod of summertime friends. We wave and laugh and hug and comment on new hairdos, new bathing suits, the chilliness or warmth of the water and showers, and revel in homecoming (our original environment was, after all, quite watery). 

For us early-morning, weekday swimmers, that sense of homecoming begins before we ever encounter the pool. For 17 years, Andrea Bell has been in a booth, richly greeting every swimmer by name. I’ve often wondered how Andrea manages to be so darn cheery at 5:30 in the morning. Worried that you’ll arrive at the pool and Andrea will have overslept? Never happened (although on a few occasions, the pool has been unable to open on time due to lack of lifeguards).

Some days it’s not so easy to get up at 5:30 to go swimming, but I know that Andrea will already be there — waiting — and I’ll be happy that I made the effort. Some mornings it’ll rain and a lifeguard may have spotted lightning in Maywood and the pool will close for 30 minutes. The pool hotline doesn’t work that early in the morning. Why take a chance on getting out of bed for nothing? No excuse. Andrea will answer the pool phone and, if there’s been lightning, will inform you how many more minutes until the pool reopens. She just wants her swimmers in the pool where they belong.

You would think she must love her job, and she assures us she does. If there is any problem, it’s Andrea we inform because she doesn’t want anything disturbing the experience of “her swimmers.” I’ve taken to telling her when I won’t be around for a few days just so she won’t worry.

All this is probably not in her job description, but Andrea won’t be held back by something that might say: Be on time; see that swimmers sign in; collect money or swipe card. Her service can’t be contained in a few short lines. She treats this part-time, second job with passion. I can’t imagine she does any less in her job working security at OPRF High School.

One of the swimmers nominated Andrea for outstanding service, and she received an interfaith worker’s award of which she is justly proud. I hand her a thank-you card and a small gift at the end of the swimming season. But it has never seemed like enough for the joy that she brings me and the other swimmers. So for the last few years, while I’m swimming, I have composed a letter to the WJ extolling her virtues so all of Oak Park might know what a treasure they have in her. 

This is that letter. I finally sent it to the paper.

But it’s too late. This season the new scheduler decided it was time “to give some other people a chance” at the coveted 5 to 7 a.m. slot. Hearing her pleas, he was willing to give her up to two days a week. It didn’t work for Andrea. She has been saving for retirement when she can act on her dream job of opening a child care center. (She’s good with all ages.) If she were leaving because of retirement, we’d be saddened, but happy for her. Instead, she’s opted to start earlier at the high school. And so she left with tears in her eyes, saying she’ll run over to the pool once a week before 6 to say hi to “her swimmers.”

I know she’s only part-time and, in this economy, those people don’t matter very much. She’s just another person of color who serves us and doesn’t even live in Oak Park. But does human interaction count for nothing? I am writing on behalf of the early-morning swimmers. Our experience has been diminished because some scheduler thought names were interchangeable. 

Where’s Dilbert when you need him?

Pat Healey, a former District 97 teacher, lives in Oak Park.

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