Although their saga includes adventures with friends such as W. C. Fields, Ross Allen, Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams, the real legacy of the Perry family is having taught thousands of people to swim over the last 100 years.
The numbers of people who have learned to swim from members of the Perry family are as uncountable as the drops of water in the pools at Perry’s Swim School in northeast Ocala. But it is safe to say that in 100 years of teaching, thousands of Ocalans, including generations of some families, learned to swim at the venerable institution.
It all started when Newton A. “Newt” Perry was born in 1908 in southern Georgia. After his family moved to the Tampa area, lifeguards there taught him to be an even better swimmer than he already was. When Newt and his family moved to Ocala in 1922, he was enthralled with Silver Springs and would walk six miles nearly every day to swim there. He soon was teaching others to swim and came to the attention of short movie producer Grantland Rice, who made features about Newt, whom he dubbed “The Human Fish,” and enlisted him in producing his films.
Newt also gained notoriety with movie stars and production companies and was, for example, the stand-in for actor Johnny Weissmuller from the Tarzan movies.
On an outing with his good friend Ross Allen, against whom he had competed in swimming and who had opened his reptile institute at Silver Springs in 1929, Newt discovered a Hernando County spring filled with trash. He couldn’t shake the thought that the spring had potential and he and a group of other like-minded folks cleaned it up and built an underwater theater. With the backing of his partners, Newt opened the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction in the fall of 1947—which last year marked 75 years of mermaids entertaining guests using the air hose technology and underwater breathing chambers he invented.
Newt Perry’s amazing life evolved to include his second wife, Dot Perry; daughter Delee; and grandchildren Rock Perry and Tasha Perry Singleton. Delee, who recalls having a Coke and some cookies in Esther William’s trailer on a movie set at the age of 10, continues to be the lead instructor at Perry’s Swim School, teaching young and old alike, as her father did back in 1923.
Delee Perry says her grandfather on her father’s side worked with the railroad and had an entrepreneurial spirit, including farming produce to sell at the once-famous Hampton Springs Hotel near Perry in Taylor County. When he took his son Newt and his four young daughters on vacations there, Newt and his oldest sister wouldn’t stay out of the water.
When Newt was 13, the family traveled for five days by automobile to Tampa, sleeping in a tent and crossing Paynes Prairie outside of Gainesville on a barge. After a hurricane damaged her grandfather’s brother’s garage in Tampa, where he had been working, he moved his family north.
“When my family moved to Ocala in 1922, Daddy was in eighth grade. You give him history, science, math, he’s gonna score in the top … but English, uh-uh. His English teacher told him he might as well drop out of school as he’d never amount to anything. And he did,” Delee shares. “He was already the size of a man and his youngest sister had polio and he felt he could help the family if he dropped out and got a job. He was digging ditches and carried brick when they were building Ocala High School.”
During this time, Newt’s willingness to work hard led him to meet movie star W.C. Fields, who was in town filming It’s The Old Army Game. Fields said he was not happy with the meals he was getting so Newt took him home to meet his mother, who was known for her cooking. Fields also was not happy with his accommodations at The Ritz and soon was ensconced in a garage apartment at the Perry family home.
Newt returned to school and at 16 was Ocala High School’s swim coach and star swimmer. He achieved All-America status in football, swimming and diving. He got a football scholarship to Furman University but left after one semester “because the coach belittled you,” Delee offers. “My dad could not adapt to that and said he promised himself he’d never do that to anybody. All of the comments my dad would give, whether it was the smallest little improvement, it was positive reinforcement, and that played an important role in my own philosophy in teaching.”
Newt encountered Dr. John Kellogg, of cereal and sanitarium fame, when another scholarship landed him in Michigan.
“Both of my parents were into nutrition and one of the reasons my dad was, was that his second scholarship in football was in Battle Creek. He got up there and his scholarship did not cover room and board and my grandparents could not afford it so he had to tell the college he was going to have to go home,” Delee remembers. “When Mr. Kellogg found out, he said to my dad, ‘I’ll let you stay with me if you’ll teach my son to swim.’”
She says he would have stayed there but the snow and cold was too much for the southern boy.
Newt came back to Florida and started college at the University of Florida in 1931.
“In his third football game, he tore his knee. Football was the fall sport, swimming was the winter sport, so he told the coach he would have to drop out of school as he didn’t have a scholarship,” Delee shares. “The swimming coach created one and my dad got the first swimming scholarship ever given at UF. Daddy, who was on the tumbling team, would lead the football team onto the field by running the length of it on his hands. He was famous for making human pyramids, supporting three men on his outstretched arms. Can you imagine how strong he was?”
When movie producers began making Tarzan movies at Silver Springs, from about 1932 to 1942, Newt’s aquatic prowess made him an integral part of the process. In 1939, when he was managing Wakulla Springs just south of Tallahassee, he promoted it as a filming location and several films were shot there, including Tarzan’s Secret Treasure.
“Another thing that happened while Daddy was at Wakulla was that the United States got into World War II,” Delee reminisces. “Omar Bradley, who was a general, came to my dad and said they were developing a very secretive group of men and ‘We want you to be one of the instructors.’ That was the frogmen, later known as Navy SEALS, and Daddy is in the SEALS hall of fame in Fort Pierce.”
After Newt opened Weeki Wachee Springs and became a member of the Florida Attractions Association, he was at a convention in Miami when he saw a striking high diver named Dorothy “Dot” Roederer, who was training for the 1948 Olympics.
“My dad said he couldn’t pay attention to what was going on at the meetings because he kept looking out the window at this beautiful woman diving,” Delee recalls. “My dad was a diver also, for the University of Florida, back in the ‘30s. He ran into her coach, Katherine Rawls, and asked her, ‘Who is that woman?’ and Katherine said, ‘That is your future wife.’”
Dot, at first, was a bit cool to the handsome but older Newt. When she barely missed the cut for the Olympic team, he had a medallion inscribed with “To Dot from Newt” on one side and “Champ” on the other.
As they grew closer, she traveled with the Water Follies, which made appearances as far away as Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands. Newt sometimes would book high diving shows at Weeki Wachee in order to bring her closer to him.
The two married in 1950 and moved to San Marcos, Texas, to help develop the Aquarena Springs Attraction, which featured underwater exploits. When it was time to move on, Newt asked Dot where she would like to live and she said Ocala seemed like a good place to raise a family. That is where Delee was born in 1951.
During the 1950s, Newt and Dot taught swimming and diving at city pools. He started the Boys Saturday Club to teach youngsters skills such as how to swim, start a fire and ride a horse. He also was a teacher, coach and principal at area schools and was involved with American Red Cross swim instruction for more than five decades.
The Perrys worked for eight years to reclaim an abandoned lime rock quarry the city had been using as a dump. That is where they built a home and opened Perry’s Swim School in 1955.
“My dad’s dream was to have a pool right outside his home,” Delee shares. “The first pool was the little one, then they opened the big pool in 1959.”
Delee Perry also was a champion swimmer and diver. Her children followed suit and were involved with Perry’s Swim School and other aquatic pursuits. Tasha is currently the assistant swimming and diving coach at Centre College in Kentucky.
“Growing up poolside in my own backyard, I would watch my mother conduct business as usual every summer,” Tasha recalls. “A few of my cherished life lessons come from watching and listening to my mother teach swimming. She has such a love, passion and devotion. I also learned how to teach with confidence, discipline and a robust sense of self-worth. As soon as I was old enough to help, she pulled me as much as I could handle to help teach the classes. I have been teaching swimming lessons for 31 years and I am thankful she passed her love, joy and strength of teaching to me.”
When asked how many pupils she has taught to swim over more than five decades, Delee replies: “That is hard. Some years as many as 500, some years only 100, 150. I figure I can safely say 20,000.”
With the help of a co-instructor, Delee offers instruction to learn to swim and also competitive swim training for children and adults.
“Parents ask how long should I give my child swimming lessons? I tell them as long as you can afford it and sometimes afford does not mean money; sometimes afford means time,” she notes. “I ask, ‘Do you have access to a pool? Do you want your child just to know how to swim to be safe around water? Do you want your child to join a swimming team?’ I teach everything from infant swimming to triathlon athletes. I like for the parent to know as much about helping their child know how to swim as actually teaching the child to swim. The key in teaching a baby is practice, like teaching them the alphabet or colors. Both of my children, at 18 months, could swim 50 feet, taking a breath of air, because I practiced with them. I heard my daughter fall into the pool when she was 17 months old. I was going to dive in and get her but by the time I got to the pool she was out. I knew what I had been teaching her really paid off in that moment.”
Delee says there are some people she cannot teach to swim.
“If you don’t want to know how to swim, I can’t help you want to learn,” she affirms. “If you don’t know how to swim but you have the desire, I can teach you.”
Sadie Fitzpatrick is one of the locals, along with her two brothers, who learned to swim from “Ms. Perry.”
“That’s just where you went,” she says of Perry’s Swim School. “And she teaches the parents as much as the kids. Her style has worked for so many people. She has had three and four generations come through her class.”
Delee says one reason the school remains a local institution, even with the advent of other programs, including the massive new Florida Aquatic Swimming Training (FAST) facility in southwest Ocala, is that she keeps her prices reasonable.
Of the Perrys teaching swimming for 100 years in Ocala, Delee says the legacy “is the love that we have of swimming and the delight seeing a child go from not being able to swim to being a really good swimmer. Or that infant who can fall in and turn around and go back to the wall and climb out by themselves; that is such a reward.”
“I love to reflect on my family’s legacy and often ponder the thought of exactly how many people we have taught how to swim over the last century,” Tasha shares. “Swimming is not something you are born knowing how to do, but something I see as a necessary skill for safety reasons.”
On the day of our interview and photo session, Delee gently fingered the medallion her father had given her mother all those years ago, hanging on a chain around her neck.
“When Mother was dying of cancer and my dad was an invalid, I was going through a tough time myself. I had my own house but I would come over while my mother was taking her treatments and I would care for my dad and sometimes she was so sick I would care for her, too,” she says wistfully. “I was getting ready to go home one day and they handed me a little box. When I opened it, I saw the word “Champ” and I turned it over and it said “To Dot from Newt.” And I said, ‘What is this?’ And they said, ‘Well, you’re our champ.’” OS
To learn more about Perry’s Swim School, go to perrysswimschool.com or call (352) 732-5540.