Florida’s First Family of Water

In Marion County, it’s only natural to use the words “swimming” and “Perry” in the same sentence. Perry’s Swim School has become a landmark in the community, having taught generations of Ocalans to swim since opening in 1955.

There’s far more to the Perrys, however, than just swimming lessons. Florida’s “first family of water” has been connected to Ocala since the early 1920s, and their fascinating story makes for some entertaining, albeit wet, reading.

The tale begins with Newton (“Newt”) Augustus Perry, a native of Georgia, who was born in Tifton on January 6, 1908, to parents Augustus (“Gus”) and Kate Perry. The oldest of five children and the only boy, Newt was just 9 when his father’s job as a railroad conductor moved the family to Tampa in 1917.

Working as a conductor kept Gus away from home routinely. In an effort to spend more time with his family, he moved them to Ocala in 1922. At the time, Ocala was the middle stop on the railroad line he traveled, so being based in Ocala enabled him to see his wife and children more often. Gus had no way of knowing how pivotal this move would become for his only son.

Newt taught himself to swim at the age of 8. After the family moved to Tampa, he immediately made his way to the beach. There, the lifeguards took him under their wings and taught him how to perfect the various strokes. Years of swimming in the Gulf made him strong and helped improve his technique. By the time the family moved to Ocala, young Newt was an excellent swimmer.

More at home in the water than on land, Newt felt he was in heaven when he discovered Silver Springs where the Silver River had been a commercial barge shipping route since the 1850s. The road leading to the attraction was still dirt when Newt first arrived in Ocala, but it was hardly a new destination for visitors. The land around the headwaters was purchased in the 1860s, and in 1878, the first glass bottom was invented, although it was just a window on the bottom of a dugout canoe. Commercial glass bottom boats were in use by the 1890s, and improved boats, complete with gas engines, debuted in 1925.

When Newt began swimming at Silver Springs in 1923 (walking six miles to reach the park), it was co-owned by Ed Carmichael. After watching Newt’s obvious talent in the water, Carmichael asked the teenager if he thought he could teach someone to swim.

“I don’t know, but I can try,” replied Newt, having no idea the “someone” Carmichael had in mind was his wife.

Sure enough, Newt taught Mrs. Carmichael how to swim. He was just 15 at the time, but that first student marked the start of what would become a long career as a swim instructor.

By 1924, then 16-year-old Newt became a lifeguard at Silver Springs. Photographs from the era reveal that men swam in one-piece suits that covered their chests. (It was considered controversial when the men’s Australian swim team wore “shirtless” swim trunks in the 1936 Berlin summer Olympics.)

It only made sense that Newt would incorporate his passion for swimming into his high school years while at Ocala High School. When he asked if the school could have a swim team, he was told that wasn’t possible since there was no coach.

“That’s OK,” said the determined teen, “I’ll coach and swim!”

With Newt at the helm, the team swam remarkably well, winning most of their state meets. But beyond the opportunity to swim and compete, this experience opened another door. While competing, he met Ross Allen, a swimmer from Winter Haven High School. Newt encouraged Ross to move to Ocala, not realizing how Ross’ fascination with reptiles would figure into the equation.

Of course, Ross Allen became a noted herpetologist, and in the early 1930s, founded the Silver Springs Reptile Institute. There, he pioneered numerous forms of antivenom later used for both research and medical purposes. His landmark work also helped educate the public and dispute the ignorant assumption that, “the only good snake is a dead snake.”

It was around the same time that Newt’s career in the movies started. The movie industry had already discovered Silver Springs (the silent film The Seven Swans was shot there in 1916), but it wasn’t until the 1930s and ’40s that the park became a regular filming location. From 1932 to 1942, six Tarzan movies, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, were filmed at the park and at Wakulla Springs in North Florida.

Newt was tapped as the stunt double for Weissmuller, diving off cliffs and out of trees whenever the script called for such dramatics. He also helped coordinate logistics such as lodging and transportation, establishing himself as a film crew consultant, in addition to acting and performing stunts. He appeared in numerous movies— including playing and dying as three different characters in the 1951 film Distant Drums starring Gary Cooper.

During the first two Tarzan movies, Newt was still a student at the University of Florida where he’d gotten a swimming scholarship. While earning his bachelor’s degree in education, he competed with the Florida Gators “Mermen” from 1933 to 1934. Not only was he captain of the swimming and diving teams, he also lettered in three sports: swimming/diving, wrestling and tumbling.

After graduating in ’34, Newt became a physical education teacher and then eventually a principal, but he continued to teach swimming at Silver Springs and work in the movies. He also became known for his role in the Boy Saturday Club, which later became the Boys’ Club in Ocala.

When filmmaker Grantland Rice visited Silver Spring in the 1930s, he put Newt front and center. Known for his Sportlight series short reels—human interest clips that ran before the feature film at the movie theater—Rice labeled Newt as “The Human Fish.”

Newt had informed Rice that he could do anything underwater that was done on land. While Rice’s cameramen filmed, Newt proceeded to ride a bicycle, drink a soda, eat a banana, have a picnic and myriad other activities… all beneath the surface of Silver Springs’ crystal clear waters.

In 1939, while working on one such film, he unintentionally set a new world record for holding his breath: three minutes 45 seconds. The entire film crew was cheering when he finally surfaced! Newt went on to help Rice produce 150 of the short films.

During the early 1940s, Newt was recruited to run a high-end vacation lodge at Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee. During his time there, he was asked to help instruct a secret group of Navy swimmers and divers known as the Frogmen.

“It was so secretive that even during my school years he couldn’t talk much about it,” recalls daughter Delee of the group that later became known as the Navy SEALS.

It was while attending a convention in Miami for the Florida Attractions Association in 1947 that Newt first met Dorothy (“Dot”) Roederer, a tower diver from Columbus, Ohio, who was in Miami training for the 1948 Olympics.

“He was 20 years her senior, and he was also divorced, which was a big deal at the time. It took him three years to convince her that he was the man for her. They married in 1950,” says Delee, who was born in 1951, the same year Newt and Dot bought the current location of Perry’s Swim School in Ocala.

Newt had invented a breathing technology during the 1940s, which allowed swimmers to extend their time underwater by utilizing free-flowing air hoses that supplied oxygen from an air compressor. With this technology, he founded Weeki Wachee (the Seminole Indian words for “winding river”), an attraction featuring underwater “mermaids.” The first show took place on October 13, 1947. Although Newt sold his interest in 1950, Weeki Wachee remains in operation, and his underwater breathing technology is still in use.

Newt’s love of water was only matched by that of his wife, Dot. Together, the couple managed Ocala’s two municipal swimming pools where they also taught swimming and lifeguarding. (One of Newt’s students was Ed Croskey; the Ed Croskey Recreation Center on NW 4th Street is named in his honor.) In addition, Dot taught water ballet at the McPherson School for Delinquent Girls, located where the current McPherson Government Complex now stands. Newt was also a volunteer teacher with the American Red Cross for over 50 years.

Of the estimated 120,000 students Newt taught to swim during his lifetime, perhaps the most accomplished was his nephew Donald Arthur Schollander. Donald went on to become a world record-holder and Olympic champion, winning a total of five gold medals and one silver in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. His four gold medals made him the most heralded athlete at the 1964 Games.

In 1955, the Perrys built their first pool and launched Perry’s Swim School in Ocala.

“When they built the second pool in 1959, it was the largest privately owned pool in Marion County at 20 feet wide, 50 feet long,” says Delee, who grew up swimming in that pool.

Newt continued his career in education; he was principal at Anthony School (now North Marion) from 1951 to 1962, and then principal at Eighth Street Elementary until retiring in 1972. In 1981, he was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame.

Delee inherited her parents’ passion for swimming. She swam competitively in her teens and was hoping to make the 1968 Olympics before a bout of mononucleosis knocked her out of training.

By the time she was 17, she was an instructor at the family’s swim school. Now 61, Delee has been teaching for 44 years and has taught well over 50,000 people to swim.

“The neatest thing is that now I am teaching children of the people I taught 20 to 30 years ago. That, to me, is the biggest honor—to teach the child of a child I taught. Almost every class some parents says, “You taught me to swim X number of years ago!” says Delee.

Despite the fact that the water is heated, the swim school is a seasonal business, open March through September. Delee likes it that way, as it gives her a break in the winter, and come spring, she’s eager to get in the water and teach again.

The youngest students are just 6 months old. Although there’s no upper age limit, Delee says her oldest student was an 88-year-old man who reluctantly took up swimming at his doctor’s suggestion to help relieve arthritis. It worked. At his first lessons, he had to be taken to the pool in a wheelchair; after a few months, he was walking by himself with a cane.

Of Delee’s two children, Rock Perry and Tasha Perry Singleton, both followed in the family’s watery footprints, Rock as an instructor and Tasha swimming on full scholarship in college and earning a national collegiate title in the 200-yard backstroke. She now coaches swimming at the high school level.

There’s no doubt Perry’s Swim School is an Ocala landmark. Although Newt passed away in 1987 and Dot in 1982, the business remains in Delee’s capable hands. She won’t be surprised if Rock’s daughter, her granddaughter, Deleah, 8, continues the family tradition. The second-grader is already a confident swimmer and loves to assist grandma during lessons.

“We have some families where my dad, my mother and I have taught someone to swim in every generation of their family,” notes Delee with a satisfied smile. “It thrills me that my family has taught swimming in Florida for 90 years.”

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(352) 732-5540

Changing Times Change is in the wind for Silver Springs, “Nature’s Theme Park,” which will be handed over to the state as of October 1. Plans call for the park to re-open eventually as a Florida State Park, although, as of press time, no date has been announced. Although the animal exhibits, Jeep tours and such will no longer be available, it’s said the public will still be able to enjoy the beauty of the park grounds and take advantage of swimming, canoeing/kayaking, picnicking and walking/hiking paths.

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