On June 29, 1960, my best friend Dayton Jenks and I went swimming at Rooster Rock. Dayton held the Gresham High School record for the mile and was attending Clark College on a track scholarship. I always assumed he could swim.

At Oregon State, where I had just finished my freshman year, passing Red Cross beginner level swimming was a pre-requisite for all other physical education. I barely passed. I still did not know that cold water would immediately sap strength.

I knew nothing of river currents and the need for life jackets.

I had no idea how to help a person in distress.

That day, Dayton got a cramp, panicked and drowned when he tried to climb atop my head and pushed me under. All I could do was to hit him and push him away to save myself.

Back then, swim classes in our area were limited to the badly polluted Blue Lake where giardia was likely. Eventually, pools were built at the local high schools. Drowning statistics began to go down, but not before I lost two more friends at Blue Lake on Memorial Day 1964.

The high school pools are old, cold, basic and ill-equipped to serve younger children or older adults. They are limited in their ability to host competitions. Not everyone will compete or be a champion, yet everyone in the Mt. Hood Community College district lives within walking distance of a river, creek, pond or lake; and everyone in this district needs to learn basic water safety and to swim, starting at a young age.

To say that the Aquatic Center is not part of the college's educational mission is wrong. The stated mission is 'Transforming Lives/Building Communities.' The Aquatic Center has transformed more lives and built more in terms of community than any other facility or program at MHCC. In addition to saving lives, the aquatic center can also prepare students for careers in pool management and other water-related and sports occupations, whether retail, wholesale or manufacturing.

After the pool was built, I decided to learn to swim well, and I was finally able to grieve Dayton's death.

Eventually, I got good enough to teach water safety classes. Recently, my leg was paralyzed. After physical therapy had done as much as Medicare pays for, I began attending the arthritis classes and eventually got my strength and feeling back. A huge senior community relies on the pool, and the costs have been kept reasonable for those of us on a fixed income. Ever since it opened more than 30 years ago, the pool has served as an important inter-generational gathering point.

Some would say that swimming is only a recreational or fitness activity that taxpayers shouldn't support. These folks would say, 'Join a gym or go to the river to swim.' My 5-year-old cousin, Patty, died in shallow water on the Columbia in 1968. Her family couldn't afford a gym. No one had taught her family water safety.

Swimming is an essential life skill. Having a modern, clean, supervised place to practice this life skill is not a frivolous waste of taxpayer resources. It also costs a lot to find bodies and retrieve them from the local rivers; there would be lots more drownings without the MHCC Aquatic Center programs and facilities.

The Aquatic Center is a true community builder that brings revenue into the coffers of the surrounding Gresham-area cities and helps build financial stability in the community. Each swim meet, whether local, regional or national, generates a huge amount of spillover income for the community in terms of shopping, restaurant and movie patronage and hotel/motel occupancy.

Thanks to recent federal stimulus dollars, the pool is now more energy efficient and has state-of-the-art filtration. The configuration has been improved to make the facility even more attractive to organizers looking to site national and international competitions. The MHCC pool is one of the most outstanding amenities in the greater Portland area for swimmers.

Even those who are sure that they or their loved ones will never end up in a river or lake should still consider the importance of what the Aquatic Center offers and should support it. Its resources should not be cut.

Janet Armstrong is a Gresham resident.

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