Sometimes you don’t realize the impact a person has on someone until they’re gone.
Such may be the case with Jack Chappell, who was a local icon if there ever was one.
Jack was a sixth-grade teacher for Lodi Unified for 30 years. He also owned and operated Chappell’s Lodi Swimming Club for 50 years on the corner of Orange and Lodi avenues. Besides running his private members-only club, Jack also taught thousands (10,000 by his count) of Lodi kids — generations, really— how to swim.
He hated to wear shoes.
You always knew where Jack stood on an issue.
He was a man’s man who lived life out loud. And his Lodi Swimming Club was his life.
“My dad was a character. He was big and bold,” his daughter Cindy Chappell would tell a local reporter after his death.
Jack’s pool was about as famous as he was. It had no heater. Chlorine was used sparingly. The pool needed to be emptied and scrubbed almost daily. It had no filter. The brutally cold water came from a well on the property. It had a 15-foot high dive that scared the heck out of youngsters, at first. Minnows would sometimes swim in the deep end.
The clubhouse part of the property had porthole windows and an upstairs deck with white railing that made it resemble a ship. The deck was built by Stan Fleener, according to Fleener’s daughter, Laura Fleener Nickel.
“My dad made a deal with Jack. He would build the deck in exchange for a lifetime membership for my sister and myself. They shook hands and dad, a carpenter by trade, built the deck and stairs. When I returned to Lodi with my own two girls, I reminded Jack of the deal he made with my dad and Jack honored the deal,” says Fleener-Nickel.
Jack loved kids. In fact, his own kids would say that their father was a kid at heart. Jack’s son John would tell a reporter, “We’re all kids at heart, and my father was the perfect example.”
As a teacher, Jack was one of the first to take his sixth grade class to science camp at Jones Gulch in the Santa Cruz mountains. He would become one of its biggest supporters.
Jack lived on the corner of Avena and Lodi avenue, adjacent to his pool. He loved to cook and was quite good at making sourdough French bread. He claimed to have gotten the sourdough “mother” from someone who lived in the High Sierra along one of the rivers he used to fish. He nursed the starter for years, making his extra-sour bread for himself and friends.
About as iconic as his pool was his red 1967 Jeepster that he bought from Weil Motors in Lodi. He would drive it around town while wearing his ship captain’s hat. The Jeep was also a fixture in the Lodi Grape Festival parade. Those were fun times. The Jeep would eventually be purchased by local car enthusiast Kirk Wentland, who meticulously restored the vehicle to mint condition. It’s now included in his extensive car collection.
Chappell was born in Corvallis, Ore., and moved to Lodi as a small child. He graduated from Lodi High School, class of 1940. He attended UCLA where he played water polo. While there he and his teammates would bring home the Pacific Coast Water Polo Championship title.
But WWII put Jack’s education on hold. He served with the Merchant Marines during the war years, getting out in 1945. He would transfer into College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific), eventually graduating with a degree in physical education.
While still in high school, Jack worked at a local swim club owned by 1932 Olympic diving hopeful Hazel Silva. While still in the service, Jack received a letter from his father in 1944 saying that he had bought the pool from Silva and was keeping it for him until he returned home, according to daughter Cindy.
Memories of Jack Chappell’s club abound, as posted on Facebook recently. Allen Matthews remembers, “Jack emptied the pool frequently as a way to keep it clean on the cheap. Water gushed down Orange Avenue.” … Janine Jacinto remembers enjoying “frozen milkshake bars” while lying on the upstairs deck. “When I was elementary age I was ‘lucky enough’ to have early morning swim lessons from Jack (at) 9 when the pool was being filled with fresh, COLD water. (Then) being ‘encouraged’ to jump in off the high dive — true sink or swim!” she recalls.
Susan Thomas-Schmidke remembers the frozen candy bars, swimming lessons, and “I broke my front tooth!! Best summers ever there.” … Laura Marshall King says, “I remember we painted ‘70s flowers on our knees and tanned so we had white skin flowers after showering!!!” … Beth Kaye and Kathi Zulim Ranagan remember a club sign that read, “I don’t swim in your toilet so you don’t pee in my pool.”
Allyson Forrest Landers says, “I took swim lessons in 1963. My memory was crawling to the end of the diving board on my stomach because I was too scared to walk! Somehow, he talked me into sitting on the end and jumping in the water. He was a very sweet guy.”
Michael Piazza says he remembers, “The magic rope, the naughty bench, the bell, red cement, ping pong scars from the net, afterhours barbecues, the giant inner tube, upper deck splinters, gourmet hot dogs with pepper, money on the books, and gutter slides.” … Lisa Kirk Robinson remembers the freezing cold water, frozen candy bars and standing at the tip of the diving board. “Jack wouldn’t let you come back down, you had to jump!” she says.
Sandy Pickering Drake says, “One time during lessons, I went off the high dive, swam to the side and the water was too low for me to reach. I panicked. I can still see (Jack) jumping in still wearing his hat, glasses, and the coat made from a towel. He rescued me, then took me to the snack bar and let me have whatever I wanted,” she recalls. … Sam Warmerdam loved when Jack would throw a big chunk of ice into the pool.
“I remember when we had the 7th-8th grade party there at the swimming pool with an Hawaiian Theme. I was never lucky enough to have Mr. Chappell for a teacher, but I feel I am lucky to have known him,” says Anita Jenkins. … Curt Travis recalls minnows in the deep end of the pool and playing ball tag. … Diane Wall Frieders says she remembers “unforgettable 7th & 8th grade summers and anxiously waiting in line to get in.”
Jennifer Paulson Thomas says her favorite memories were, “Eating Sweettarts on my towel on the black flat roof and jumping off the diving board into the freezing cold water.” … “Jack taught me how to swim in 1946, (when) I was six. Had me lay on the picnic table bench to learn the strokes. I could graduate to the pool only when I mastered them,” remembers Mary Mallory Rocha.
Roxanne Mohrmann said, “On my first lesson, I was too scared to get in the pool, so Mr. Chappell pushed me in. Lol. ... I learned to swim real quick.” … Dave Hinchman remembers his first dive into a pool in 1954 at Chappell’s, and there were “probably freshman girls nearby.”
Lodian Debbie Goni told a Sentinel reporter that she learned to swim in Jack Chappell’s pool “50 years ago” when she was three. “He taught my dad to swim, and (then) he taught my kids to swim,” she said.
When Jack got sick, he reportedly told the people around him that he couldn’t possibly go to the hospital, saying emphatically, “I’ve got a pool to run!” Jack died later that day at Lodi Memorial Hospital. He was 79.
The pool? It’s gone. Despite early hopes of keeping it open, the family eventually sold the property on the corner of Orange and Lodi. The pool was demolished, the clubhouse torn down, and the property developed into two single-family homes in 2005.
The buildings are gone, but the fond memories remain.
On a Friday evening in June, 2002, about 125 friends and family gathered at Lodi Lake to remember Jack and celebrate his life. His daughter Cindy said of her father at the time, “He was a very passionate man. He loved the underdog and exemplified the power of one.”
Steve is a former newspaper publisher and lifelong Lodian whose column appears most Tuesdays in the News-Sentinel. Write to Steve at aboutlodi@ gmail.com.