For anyone who grew up prior to the 1990s, the modern life of the child can seem a tad restrictive. Whether at school, on the ballfield, or on structured “playdates,” kids today learn and play in a rule-dominated environment. A summer’s day at the pool, for instance, includes a plethora of posted regulations — from “no diving” and “no running,” to limits on swimmers, rotating lifeguards with mandatory breaks — even a restriction on pumped-up floaties. But while pools and schools may overcompensate today, the headlines of the past speak to how we got here.
Tragedies involving minors were nothing short of common in that less structured time, and locally, a number of Milford High School yearbooks from those years feature “in memoriam” dedications to would-be graduates who were lost along the way. In 1956, for instance, 15-year-old Maurice Grugnale of North River Road died in a bizarre swimming accident. On a hot June day at the old town pool behind the pumping station, Grugnale dove into the deep end and hit his head on an iron ladder, which had been accidentally dropped and left there. Grugnale came up shouting something not understood and as he sunk to the bottom, his friends desperately tried to get someone to listen and understand what was happening. Unfortunately, they were lost among dozens of shouting, screaming youngsters who packed the pool — which was not even officially open — on the first hot day of summer. With no lifeguards on duty or adults nearby, moments of panic ticked by. In a confusing scene, one schoolmate dived for Grugnale, another tried to throw him a towel, and others raced for help. It was not until the police arrived at the pool with an artificial resuscitator that Grugnale was finally pulled out dead.
Some days later, the Milford Cabinet reported Dr. Oscar Burns’s rather strange conclusion at the scene that “the boy had a probable heart condition and the plunge into cold water immediately after bicycling may have precipitated the accident.” This deduction would prove decidedly false, and a jury would order the town to pay $3,500 to Grugnale’s family three years later.
Sadly and ironically, the next edition of the Cabinet featured not only the headline “Swimming Pool Tragedy Costs the Life of Maurice Grugnale” above the fold on the right, but also a story to the left entitled, “Milford Lifeguards Attending Aquatic School at Brookline” — a testament to both the future of pool safety and what was severely lacking when Grugnale took his fateful plunge.
The old town pool on South Street near the Pumping Station.