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70-year-old leads Hub pack of hard-core polar bears

L Street Brownies president Jack Dever, shown emerging from the water in 2003, reminisced yesterday about a life-time of swimming in Dorchester Bay and looked forward to today's swim. L Street Brownies president Jack Dever, shown emerging from the water in 2003, reminisced yesterday about a life-time of swimming in Dorchester Bay and looked forward to today's swim. (David L. Ryan/globe staff/file/2003)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / January 1, 2010

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When Jack Dever plunges into the frigid waters of Boston Harbor today to welcome in the new year with a bracing swim, he’ll feel right at home.

Stripping down to a bathing suit and hurtling into heart-stoppingly cold water for a few strokes may be a novelty to many of the 500 people who will follow him into the water, but for Dever it’s just part of a daily routine. The 70-year-old president of the L Street Brownies - the polar bear swimming club that boasts it is the nation’s oldest - says the cold water makes him feel healthier.

“Myself, I grew up across the street in the housing project, so pretty much as a kid we always swam in cold water,’’ Dever said. “My mother would bring us down. It builds up fortitude in a youngster, teaches you how to overcome adversity. Pretty much since I was an infant I’ve been swimming in this water. It’s the way we grew up around here.’’

For most of his life, Dever swam in Boston Harbor from April to November. But about 30 years ago, Dever began to swim in winter, too. Now he tries to swim every day, building up a tolerance for the cold and scheduling his dips according to the tides.

Dever has gone so far as to bring a shovel to the beach to break through the ice, a level of dedication - or insanity, depending on your point of view - that is only embraced by a core group of L Street Brownies - about 50 men and women who swim on a regular basis. But for more than a century, many more people of all ages and both genders have gathered at the beach for the New Year’s Day swim tradition.

Fred Ahern, the director of the Curley Community Center who emcees the event through a megaphone, noted today’s forecast of snow showers and cold sounded ideal. “If it’s inclement weather, it almost makes for a better day - what we don’t like to see is a nice, sunny, 45-degree day,’’ Ahern said.

For Dever, a retired schoolteacher and coach for the Boston Public Schools, said there’s a mission to the madness. The L Street Brownies use the event to raise money for the South Boston Sports Hall of Fame Scholarship Fund.

Dever took four quick dips yesterday in preparation for today, and planned to get to bed early in order to prepare for welcoming in the new year. Earlier in the week, he said, he was worried there would be a blizzard - not because it would ruin the swimming conditions, but because it might make parking and driving to the event a hassle.

“The key is you don’t stay in too long,’’ said Dever. “With the snow, it’s a great ambience to go into salt water - take a swim, see the snow. It’s beautiful.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.