For 51 summers, Duke Brown has worked beside the ocean in Horry County, striving every day to save lives and make the beaches safer.
“Unfortunately, we have to realize that you can have a lot of fun in the ocean, but it’s not your natural environment and you’ve got to respect it and know your limitations,” said Brown, a lance corporal with the Horry County Police Department and water safety director for beaches in the unincorporated areas of the county. That includes Shore Drive and Lake Arrowhead, from Springmaid to Surfside, and a portion of Garden City.
At 12 years old, the dream of many little boys back then became reality for him when he became a “beach monkey,” running and doing whatever the lifeguard he worked with wanted him to do. He soaked in the sunshine and all of the knowledge he could.
“I’ve always been intrigued with the ocean. I started learning about the ocean because those people kind of understood their environment. I did a lot of listening,” he said.
Never miss a local story.
He’s really a beach ambassador. The Police department and the county are lucky to have him.
Darris Fowler, former supervisor
Through his years growing up in North Carolina, his college years, a year teaching in North Carolina, 22 years teaching at Department of Defense schools in Beaufort and Myrtle Beach, Brown continued spending his summers on Horry County’s beaches, moving from beach monkey to lifeguard, becoming more proficient and later teaching all phases of water and beach safety, including lifeguarding, advanced lifesaving, first aid, CPR and more as a beach patrol officer. A Red Cross instructor and United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) member, he also reviews certifications of lifeguard agencies from Virginia Beach, Va., to Jacksonville Fla.
While teaching physical education and some special needs classes in Horry County schools, Brown started junior lifeguard training for fifth-graders at Seaside, St. James and Forestbrook elementary schools, and over 1,000 students have completed it. “We are in our 17th year, and we have 82 students this year,” said Brown, who is now teaching at Forestbrook Elementary.
David Cupolo, a former principal at Forestbrook who is waiting to take the position of principal at a new county school, said Brown prepares those fifth-graders to save lives in and out of the water. “I can’t say enough about his dedication to Junior lifeguarding and making sure swimmers around here are safe,” Cupolo said.
The extra dedication of the beach patrol officers and others who voluntarily assist with the Junior Lifeguard training is proof that they see the value of the program, which is nationally known, he said.
Brown, who is also an advanced emergency medical technician, worked and/or volunteered with several local municipalities or agencies as lifeguarding, water safety, first aid and lifesaving techniques progressed. “We used to be reactive. Now we are proactive,” Brown said. “There is also a lot more usage of equipment.”
The most important thing a swimmer or anyone going into the ocean or a pool can do is to make sure they are in an area with lifeguards, so that they can find out about the conditions that could cause problems, such as rip currents, which are responsible for about 75 percent to 80 percent of rescues.
Brown encourages parents to familiarize their children with the letters or signs displayed at ocean accesses so they can tell someone where they went onto the beach if the current carries them blocks away, as it often does. “People don’t realize the number of lost kids we see down here,” he said.
Some other reminders for the public is to always swim with a friend. If you can’t swim, don’t go deeper than your waist. Pay attention to the flags and know their meaning, beginning with the red flag, the most serious warning for swimmers.
Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson was a lieutenant with the Horry County Police Department in the late 80s when the Beach Patrol was started. He worked with Brown at that time and for years afterward. “He’s an extremely dedicated man,” Thompson said, adding that Brown worked hard, worked long hours and lived his job. “He provided a quality service to lifeguards and beachfront managers, and he still does,” Thompson said.
“He’s really a beach ambassador. The Police department and the county are lucky to have him,” said Deputy Coroner Darris Fowler, who was Brown’s supervisor for a time before retiring from the HCPD.
“Not only is Duke a true professional, he’s a caring person,” Fowler said. “He’s not doing his job for recognition, he’s doing it out of love for the community and the people.”
Brown was on the committee that rewrote the USLA’s last textbook, and that committee is working on another one. He has also been instrumental in other lifesaving publications.
A surfer and a past skateboard champion, Brown has the support of his wife, Kathy, in all of his efforts. They have three children and one grandchild.
He said he has been very fortunate to have known and learned from local lifesaving professionals such as George Lack and Bill Bigham, who were lifeguards in the 60s and then started lifeguard agencies that continue to protect people and save lives.
Brown never stops learning, and his intrigue with the ocean is as strong as ever. “I still have that passion,” he said.