You might say Dave Munsey and the YMCA are a match made in heaven. Munsey is widely regarded as the “father of water safety” in Arizona, and the YMCA has long been known as “America’s swim instructor.” Now the recently retired TV weatherman and the Valley of the Sun YMCA have teamed up to help prevent childhood drowning.
Munsey’s devotion to the cause began 37 years ago when the 2-year-old son of a close friend drowned in a Minnesota lake. Timmy was walking along the edge of the lake with a 14-year-old cousin when he slipped in. The adults who arrived to help were unskilled in CPR.
Shaken by the tragedy, Munsey, then five years into his 42-year reign on KSAZ-TV News, decided to do a story on the topic. His research revealed a startling fact.
“As I started looking into the issue and developing the story, I realized kids were drowning every day,” recalls Munsey. “It just never made the news.”
Thus began his decades-long crusade to raise awareness of the issue and educate adults to “Watch your kids around water.” When Munsey first started closing each daily newscast with that warning, his bosses were none too pleased.
A Lonely Crusade
“It was very lonely in the beginning,” says Munsey. “My manager came to me and said, ‘What are you saying? You’re scaring people. Don’t say it anymore.’ They told me to stop many times.”
But Munsey persisted, and eventually, the statistics became too grim for others to ignore. By the mid-1980s, Arizona’s drowning death rate among preschoolers was the highest in the nation. In 1988 alone, there were 102 life-threatening pool incidents among children under 5 just in Maricopa County.
For nearly four decades, Munsey never missed an opportunity to spread the message about water safety, whether on air or at events around the Valley. Still, he never realized the impact of his dedication to drowning prevention until he announced his retirement this spring.
“When I opened my phone to read my messages afterward, I started crying,” Munsey recalls. “They were so personal, saying ‘You looked after our kids’; ‘You always reminded us’; ‘You were always there.’”
The tech department calculated Munsey received over a million email responses to his retirement announcement, and 99 percent of them included the words “Watch your kids around water.”
A number of businesses and organizations also contacted him about partnering with them as a spokesperson. He weeded out most of those requests, but he said yes to the YMCA. Munsey has teamed up with the Valley of the Sun Y on a volunteer basis to promote our new Safety Around Water program and swim lessons.
“I’m very excited about hooking up with the Y,” says Munsey. “They’ve got a long history of doing stuff like this, and it’s a perfect fit for me right now.”
Teach Your Kids to Swim
In fact, the YMCA invented group swim lessons, back in 1906 in Detroit. Thirteen years later, the Y published its Swimming and Lifesaving Manual, one of the earliest works on the subject. By 1984, YMCAs collectively were the largest operator of swimming pools in the world.
The YMCA’s new Safety Around Water program teaches parents, other caregivers and children about the importance of water safety skills. Caregivers learn how to supervise children in the water, prevent accidents and plan for emergencies. Children learn how to reach the water’s surface if they become submerged, safely reach a pool’s edge, exit any body of water and respond to unexpected water situations.
The program also includes a new national swim lesson curriculum. In his role as YMCA water-safety advocate, Munsey has adopted a new catchphrase—“Teach your kids to swim.”
“It’s still important for parents to watch their kids around water,” says Munsey, “but we know they get distracted, when they answer the phone, go to the bathroom or get something off the stove. If they teach their kids to swim, the kids are going to have a better chance in those moments when the parent turns away.”
After nearly 40 years of preaching water safety, Munsey says he has no plans to retire from that role.
“I think I’ll have a long association with the Y,” he says. “I’m having fun. I’m mostly enjoying being able to say to people, ‘I’m not done.’ I don’t care anymore whether it rains or snows or the wind blows dust in your face,” proclaims the former weatherman. “I care about kids drowning in swimming pools.”
Among those million messages, Munsey received after announcing his retirement from broadcasting was one that carried special meaning. It was from Timmy’s parents, who said they had stayed up until the wee hours reading thousands of the messages posted online about Munsey’s devotion to water safety. Their note said, “We wanted to tell you, Timmy did not die in vain.”
“That was my reward,” says Munsey tearfully. “When you know you’ve made a difference, why would you want to stop?”