From his perch atop a lifeguard stand at Field 6 at Jones Beach, Roy Lester looks out on what he has gazed upon since he was a teenager: the rolling blue blanket that is his beloved Atlantic Ocean.
Now 71, Lester has fought age and the state of New York, which operates Jones Beach, to remain in his seat above the crowds on the beach, and to maintain his view of the sea.
Lester began the third year of his second chapter as a Jones Beach lifeguard at the beginning of the summer. Three years ago he won a court fight in State Supreme Court in Mineola against the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which wanted to deny him his lifeguard job because — and this is why his lawsuit went viral — he refused to take the state “rehire” swimming test clad in a tight-fitting Speedo swimsuit, which he considered unseemly for senior lifeguards.
Lester said last week that the time may be coming for him to vacate the white wooden stands he has loved all of his life, and retire. Not right away, he insists. But he can now see the day.
“Eventually,” he said. “I can see that.”
Lester is a well-known figure in Long Beach, a self-proclaimed “loudmouth” who appears at almost every City Council meeting and rarely misses a chance to ask questions, particularly about municipal spending and the budget.
In June, Lester, who campaigned independently in the Democratic City Council primary, was among the top vote-getters, and will run for a seat on the council in the November election. Given the overwhelmingly number of Democratic voters in Long Beach, he is likely to win a seat.
He is no newcomer to elections. He has run five times — sometimes winning and sometimes losing — for seats on the Long Beach school board, and was once the board’s president.
Lester, a bankruptcy attorney, has always reserved his summers for the beach. He got his first lifeguarding job in 1965, when Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were making beach-blanket movies. And he did not stop working summers until 2007, when he showed up at the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps’ spring rehire test wearing jammers, a thigh-hugging swimsuit that looks like a pair of biking shorts.
He was told he could not take the test unless he wore either a Speedo or looser-fitting surfing shorts issued by the state parks office. He argued that a Speedo was way less than flattering for a man his age, and the trunks created too much drag, which was a potential career-ender for older guards, and thus began a lawsuit that was covered by media worldwide. Pictures of Lester on the beach in a bathing suit went viral.
“For 15 years I’d been wearing this,” he said of the jammers, “and I’m not going to change now.” He added that they are widely used in competitive swimming, and were worn regularly, though not for the annual test, by some of the older lifeguards. Though most wear the state-issued Speedos, Lester said that at his age, he wasn’t comfortable showing that much skin.
He filed suit against the state parks office in 2008. The case dragged on for years, and Lester took a lifeguarding job at a private club in Atlantic Beach while he waited for his day in court.
In 2014, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Michele Woodard granted the state’s motion to dismiss Lester’s claim, but Lester appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the decision. A four-judge panel ruled that the parks agency had not established that it had a nondiscriminatory reason for excluding Lester from the test.
Five years later, another State Supreme Court Judge in Nassau County, Tom Feinman, made it clear to the state that he wanted the case settled. Lawyers for the state and Lester met privately. The settlement allowed Lester to take the state lifeguard test privately — no one would see him in a Speedo.
“They said they would shut the pool down,” Lester said. He passed the test, in which lifeguards are timed for a 100-yard swim in a pool and a quarter-mile run on a track. (He has always been an athlete. The U.S. Triathlon Association named him an All-American in his age group in the years 2013 through 2016, after he received an honorable mention in 2009 and 2010.)
Lester once said he could pass the Jones Beach test wearing jeans, but he wore a Speedo for the private test. “At that point, I said the hell with it.” There was no large audience to worry about.
Paul Gillespie, Long Beach’s chief lifeguard, said that swimwear generally isn’t an issue for those who take the city lifeguard test, although “baggies” aren’t allowed.
“As long as they have something that looks like a swimsuit, it’s OK,” Gillespie said.
“I challenged the rules,” Lester said, “And I won.”