I first met Dave Heiser when I was in seventh grade. He was a P.E. teacher at John Adams Jr. High. He was an amazing athlete, and an inspiration to us kids. Among other things, he was a tremendous gymnast.
On occasion he would perform on the high bars in our auditorium as we watched breathlessly. A lifeguard in the summers, he would also frequently take us kids to swim at Santa Monica College. Not surprisingly, he was everybody’s favorite teacher.
More than 50 years later, I became interested in finding Mr. Heiser because of a photo I was given of the Santa Monica Paddle Board Club, which was dated “1935.” At the Santa Monica High School all-class picnic that year, I was told that Mr. Heiser was not only in the photo, but possibly the only one still alive, and was thought to be living in Santa Monica. Somehow, I felt compelled to find him.
Luckily for me, my friend, Michelle Dawn, is a licensed private investigator. Given her skills and the vast information on the Internet, to my amazement, Michelle located him.
In the meantime, I found an L.A. Times article from 2008 with a photo of all the Santa Monica lifeguards from 1946. Mr. Heiser was identified in the photo as being 22 so I knew he was too young to have been in the paddle board club. It didn’t matter that my quest had begun on a mistake, I still had to re-connect with my former teacher.
Michelle was eventually able to get Mr. Heiser’s phone number and when I called I was very nervous. He said he wasn’t well, but that he’d be delighted to see me. So it was set.
And on May 23, I was even more nervous when I knocked on his door. Even at 89, I couldn’t get over how much Mr. Heiser still looked the same as he did at John Adams. I hugged him, and he said, “You’re all grown up now, Diane, just call me Dave.” We both laughed.
I was awestruck by the amount of photos on his walls documenting a lifetime on the water and in the gymnastics world. He patiently explained to me who everybody was in the photos, as well as where the pictures were taken.
As I settled in to the chair across from him, one of my first questions to him was, “What was it like to be on the top of a 20-foot wave?” His response was, “It was scary, oh God was it scary!”
Of course, today they are surfing 60-foot waves with the help of “tow-ins” by Jet Skis.
Dave told me that in order to surf these “mavericks,” or giant waves, he would have to hold his breath for 4 minutes. “If I did that today, I would expire!”
I asked if he had ever made any of his own boards. “I made four. One I made a table out of, and this guy liked it so much I sold it to him for $300.”
As Dave reminisced, he told me that during the winter months, when they didn’t need many lifeguards, he worked as a stuntman for the movie studios. Once he was part of a three-tier water ski stunt.
“Oh, wow!,” I said. “Kind of like they’d do at Cypress Gardens in Florida?” He smiled modestly, “Well, yes, you could say that.”
I then had to say good-bye, and asked if I could come back the following Tuesday. He said, “I’d like that!”
Upon my return, I brought something to share with Dave. It was my ‘59 yearbook from John Adams. He studied it and carefully turned the pages, as the cover had already torn away from the binding. There were several pictures of him and when I pointed them out he smiled with amusement. He also found a few I had missed. He appreciated my bringing the book, and said he enjoyed it immensely.
As I was leaving, I asked, “Do you mind if I come by and see you when I’m here in Santa Monica?” He replied, “Sure! I’ll either be here, or over at Woodlawn.” I said, “Oh, is that the nursing home where you are during the day?”
“No, it’s the cemetery on 14th Street.” Ill as he was, he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. “I even have my tombstone picked out,” he joked. “I’d rather be at the beach!”
Dave passed away a month and a half after my meeting with him. I could not believe it, and was very saddened by the news. I couldn’t help but think, if it were not for the mistaken identity in the paddle board club photo, I never would have had the opportunity of seeing him again. I was so glad that I did, as we had come full circle.
Dave Heiser (1924-2013) was a great teacher, surfer, athlete, and all around waterman. He was also a great guy. R.I.P.
Diane Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.