Keeper of Fuller Pool
From the June, 2014 issue
On a sunny morning in early May, no one is in the water at Fuller Pool, but about two dozen city staffers and volunteers are milling around it, adults setting up lounge chairs and little kids bouncing a basketball or picking dandelions from a flowerbed. Pool manager Gayle Hurn checks the chlorine level and then moves briskly among the workers, flashing a broad smile and lending a hand here and there.
Wearing shorts and a Parks and Rec T-shirt, Hurn cuts a distinctive figure, with tattoos on both arms, her nose and eyelids pierced, and her baby son strapped to her back. Though the newly filled pool sparkles blue and green, the water temperature is a cool sixty degrees. "Come back when we're open" after Memorial Day, Hurn says. "It will be a lot warmer."
Hurn, thirty-six, started working for the parks system as an eighteen-year-old EMU freshman, skating around the Buhr Park ice rink to make sure visitors were behaving themselves. "I wasn't even a good skater," she recalls. She worked part time through college and grad school, with some breaks, like the three or four months she worked as a barmaid in Australia. Five years ago, to her delight, she was hired full-time. She now runs Fuller during the summer, and the indoor Mack Pool during the school year. Hundreds of local swimmers know her by sight, and two girls who started taking swimming lessons with her in elementary school now work for her as lifeguards.
Both a lifeguard and a certified pool manager, Hurn says Fuller "attracts lots of lap swimmers and college students. We want to be more family friendly." Last year, she introduced log rolling, a sport where kids and adults try to keep their balance on floating, synthetic "logs," and movie showings that kids can watch from the water. This year, Parks and Rec is adding barbecues at Fuller to encourage family picnics.
On very hot days, Fuller easily attracts up to 800 swimmers,
many of them kids. Supervising this scene is not a task for the timid, but Hurn describes a well-trained staff alert for potential problems, such as kids starting to push or argue. She and her staff also stand up to parents who demand that their kids be allowed to go in the deep end (twelve feet), even though they haven't passed the required swim test, and they mediate when swimmers doing laps get annoyed at sharing a lane with weaker swimmers. (They may suggest that they divide the lane or that the weaker swimmer do circle laps around the pool.)
Fuller is the only city pool that stays open when it rains--unless there is lightning and thunder. Hurn is impressed by the number of her swimmers who seem indifferent to rain and climb out reluctantly even when thunder crackles. "Some will wait [in the locker room] an hour" for the all clear, she says. While she knows that some of her swimmers are competing nationally, what she finds most moving is to see beginning swimmers gain confidence. She recalls a seven-year-old boy, small for his age, who wanted to be allowed in the deep end so badly that he cried when he failed the test. He took the test a second and third time and failed. Finally, on his fourth try he succeeded in swimming the length of the pool, then treading water for one minute. "His whole [day] camp was cheering. He was so excited!"
Hurn recalls no drownings in the public pools during her time, and serious accidents are rare. Last summer, Fuller did call 911 once when a child hit his head on the big slide; he was fine. More common, she says with regret, are thefts of cell phones left lying on the lounge chairs while their owners go into the pool. Last year, they called the police once when a witness reported seeing a thief in the act. "The police take it from there."
Hurn appreciates the wealth of choices Ann Arborites have for recreation. She grew up in Flint, during its sad slide into poverty as the auto industry tanked. The third of four children, she says, "I can't remember when we didn't have to pinch pennies." Her father was a carpenter; her mother--diagnosed with MS when Hurn was twelve--stayed home with the kids. Although Hurn swam on her high school team, there were no public pools. She sees public pools not only as places where children gain valuable skills, but where people can come together "as a community."
At EMU, where she got a secondary teaching certificate--and decided she didn't want to teach--she usually worked three jobs. She says she's found her master's degree in theater for the young valuable when working with kids at the pools, because it emphasizes the importance of play.
She's married to Jonathan Hurn--a carpenter, like her dad. So far, daughter Winnrey, two, and Chet, seven months, have had limited exposure to water. A bit sheepishly, Hurn explains that it's hard to return to a pool after being near one all week.
Hurn's tattoos, particularly the dark birds etched on her right arm, sometimes startle new pool users, though she says people are not hostile, just curious. She got the tattoos to reward herself for losing weight and says she doesn't regret it. She remembers an EMU professor who warned her that because of the tattoos, "You're not going to get a job, never be successful." A smile crosses her face as she recalls her answer: "I said, 'I think people will give me a chance.'"
[Originally published in June, 2014.]