Naperville's first female lifeguard remembered for hard work, achievements

  • Marge Wehrli Walsh was the first female lifeguard at Centennial Beach in Naperville and the first woman in her family to attend and complete college. She died Monday at age 96.

    Marge Wehrli Walsh was the first female lifeguard at Centennial Beach in Naperville and the first woman in her family to attend and complete college. She died Monday at age 96. Courtesy of Naperville Park District

  • Staff members at Centennial Beach in Naperville created a special chair for Marge Wehrli Walsh, the beach's first female lifeguard, and let her sit in it each time the retiree would visit her former workplace. On Monday, employees placed Marge's chair in a place of honor for all to see after she died at age 96.

    Staff members at Centennial Beach in Naperville created a special chair for Marge Wehrli Walsh, the beach's first female lifeguard, and let her sit in it each time the retiree would visit her former workplace. On Monday, employees placed Marge's chair in a place of honor for all to see after she died at age 96. Courtesy of Naperville Park District

  • Marge Wehrli graduated from Illinois State Teachers College in 1944 with a major in physical education and a minor in home economics.

    Marge Wehrli graduated from Illinois State Teachers College in 1944 with a major in physical education and a minor in home economics. Courtesy of Mary Lou Wehrli

  • Marge Wehrli Walsh married Walter Walsh in 1946 and the couple raise five kids in Naperville.

    Marge Wehrli Walsh married Walter Walsh in 1946 and the couple raise five kids in Naperville. Courtesy of Mary Lou Wehrli

 
 
Updated 9/6/2017 1:22 PM

When Centennial Beach's first female lifeguard returned decades later to her former workplace in Naperville, the staff broke out a special chair.

A white and red, wooden Adirondack was a place of comfort for Marge Wehrli Walsh well into her 90s as she relaxed by the water.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So when Marge died Monday at age 96 on the beach's final day of the season, the lifeguards who followed in her footsteps moved her special chair into a place of honor and celebrated the trailblazer's life with a moment of silence.

"She was such a big part of Centennial Beach and the Naperville community," said Andrea Coates, manager of the beach, which the city developed from 1931 to 1934 to celebrate its 100th anniversary. "She was a remarkable lady."

It took the beach about a decade to hire Marge as its first female lifeguard, a role she held in her early 20s from 1942 to 1945 during World War II. Her presence and perseverance in a traditionally male position drew comparisons to the generation of "Rosie the Riveters" who entered male-dominated manufacturing fields to support the war effort.

The park district praised Marge and highlighted her Rosie-like tenacity in May 2016, a month after she celebrated her 95th birthday.

"Marge illustrated that women could fill an important and physically-challenging role while earning respect for their hard work and determination," the park district wrote in a brief bio shared at the celebration.

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One of Marge's nieces, Mary Lou Wehrli of Naperville, said the lifeguarding gig was among several jobs Marge took on to pay her way through Illinois State Teachers College, now known as Northern Illinois University. She popped popcorn at a theater in town and was a recreation helper at the YMCA while on summer breaks before her graduation in 1944.

When Marge got her major in physical education and minor in home economics, she became the first woman in the Wehrli family to finish college, her niece said.

"Her dad thought only guys go to college and they go on a football scholarship," she said.

Marge was born April 28, 1921, in Aurora as the third child and first girl among a family that eventually grew to 13 kids. She helped take care of her younger siblings while growing up and later became an accomplished seamstress, said another of her nieces, Annette Wehrli of Naperville.

On April 27, 1946, Marge married Walter Walsh, her sweetheart from grade school and high school. Together they had five children who now live in California, Florida, western Illinois, Oswego and Naperville. And together they stole the show at a large number of Wehrli family weddings with their "graceful and joyful" dancing, Mary Lou Wehrli said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"(Marge) was just a bundle of common sense and laughter and hard work," she said.

Marge and Walter had a house built on Webster Street and lived there from 1952 until their passings, Walter in 2002 and Marge this week. It was a warm and welcoming place where popping in was encouraged, Marge's nieces said.

"Her door was always open," Annette Wehrli said. "Her cookie jar was always full."

As a teacher and a physical education advocate, Marge impressed upon her family the importance of learning to swim and shared the occasional memory from her summers scanning the waters of Centennial Beach.

"She always had a wonderful story to tell you," Annette Wehrli said.

Family will celebrate Marge's life with a memorial Mass at 9:30 a.m. Friday at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 36 N. Ellsworth St., Naperville, followed by a private inurnment at Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery.

The family is hosting a reception at 11 a.m. Friday on the lower level of Judd Kendall VFW Post 3873, 908 Jackson Ave., Naperville.

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