Swimming Through Retirement
It’s no coincidence that Bob Kerper was born under the zodiac fish sign Pisces on February 22, 1924. At the age of 80, he has two national Master’s level swimming championships under his belt and soon will start training again for the Master’s to compete in the 80-85 level. Most days, he swims up to eighty lengths (more than a mile) in the pool at Shannondell, a retirement resort in Valley Forge, PA, where he lives with his college sweetheart and wife, Mary Elizabeth.
Bob Kerper’s vibrant, active life has been filled with hundreds of water-based adventures. He explains, “I’ve done just about anything you can do on or beneath the water. From competitive swimming to teaching and underwater diving to water shows, I’ve done it all.” Shannondell residents will tell you that Bob is part fish. You may agree with them after you read about his life.
Summers at the neighborhood pool in West Reading, PA developed Bob’s passion for swimming. He fondly remembers the pool lifeguards who taught him the backstroke and inspired him to become a competitive swimmer. At West Reading High School, he won the Pennsylvania State PIAA 100-yard backstroke Championship for two successive years, and he was selected for the All-American High School Swim Team. Bob even earned a scholarship to the Mercersburg Academy, where he reigned as the national 100-yard backstroke champion.
After seeing Johnny Weismuller and Eleanor Holm at the 1939 World’s Fair Billy Rose Aquacade in New York, Bob became extremely interested in water shows. The Esther Williams movies, which Bob watched several times each, further stimulated this fascination. In fact, he began planning and producing his own water shows and pageants when he was sixteen at the West Reading Borough Swimming Pool. Bob has produced more than fifteen shows throughout his life, including the Reading Junior of Commerce Rivercades on the Schuylkill River during the 1950s.
Aquatic shows were a highlight of Bob’s life for many years. In 2002, he wrote and published a specialized book about these shows called, Splash! Aquatic Shows from A to Z. In addition to the history of water shows and the art of swimming, he wrote about many of his amateur shows and escapades in the book. One of Bob’s most cherished memories was the fire dive from a specially built 40-foot diving tower. During the climax of the West Reading water shows, Bob would set his best friend, John Gilbert, on fire as part of the show.
With a broad smile, Bob recalls, “I remember making John put on three suits of long underwear with women’s silk stockings over his head to protect him. I’d douse him with lighter fluid and then light him on fire before he plunged into nine feet of water. One time, John had his eyebrows burned off and his hair singed!”
Before joining the U.S. Navy in 1943 during WWII, Bob taught private and group lessons at the West Reading pool, which is why the Navy assigned him to the physical training program to teach sailors how to swim. He taught thousands of new recruits and officers how to survive in the water with warfare aquatic activities. Bob recalls, “I taught pilots to survive after ditching their planes and others to stay alive under burning oil.”
After the war, Bob enrolled at West Chester University, where he was honored as a distinguished Alumnus and was inducted into the University Athletic Hall of Fame. During college, Bob earned eleven varsity letters in swimming, track, and cross-country and was Captain of the swimming and cross-country teams. Representing West Chester, he won, for two successive years, the Middle Atlantic States Intercollegiate 150-yard backstroke and the 300-yard individual medley, setting records in each event. He competed in the Eastern and National Intercollegiate championships at Yale and Princeton.
For his state and national swimming and running feats in high school, prep school, and college, Bob was inducted into the Berks County Aquatic Hall of Fame during the early 1970s. He was also inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and was selected as one of four Outstanding Young Men in Pennsylvania in 1955. Bob has also won several awards for his community service. He was general manager of the Kutztown Pennsylvania German Festival for three years and for eight years produced the area’s largest summertime event-Scenic River Days.
Given his passion for adventure, Bob volunteered with the State Police as a qualified Diver and was called upon dozens of times to recover stolen cars, safes, weapons, and bodies from lakes, rivers, and quarries. He dove off Atlantic City’s 40-foot Steel Pier, shot a shark in Key West, FL, and made and launched a homemade submarine. For fun, Bob often went cave diving-where he explored water-filled cave rooms that were 600-800 feet under the earth. Bob has given presentations to the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts about his underwater exploration of caves and ships. More recently, he has given talks to Shannondell residents on the subject.
When Bob retired from his executive position at Cabot Corporation after 27 years with the company, he did not want retirement to mean a change in his fast-paced, active lifestyle. Bob sought a community that would allow him and his wife to stay active and vibrant. They wanted to surround themselves with people their age and feel like part of a community. Bob and Mary Elizabeth took a “very early look” at Shannondell and were extremely impressed.
“The concept of an active resort community really appealed to us because it offers so many activities, restaurants, and amenities on site,” Bob says. “And of course, the 100% refundable entry fee also caught our attention. It’s a great incentive.” Shortly after touring Shannondell, Bob and Mary Elizabeth put down a deposit.
Before moving to Shannondell, the Kerpers lived in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. They now enjoy residing in the suburbs of Valley Forge since Shannondell’s location is close to where they grew up in Reading and West Chester. The couple is glad to be out of the city and breathing the country air again. Bob says, “Mary Elizabeth grew up riding horses. For that reason, we waited for a unit in a building that overlooks the horse farm. We truly enjoy watching the horses and colts every day.”
One of the reasons that Bob and Mary Elizabeth chose to live at Shannondell was the wonderful staff and residents they could relate to. They have so much in common professionally and educationally with the residents. With so many social activities like theatre, arts and crafts, bingo night, and bowling (which is coming to Shannondell soon), the intellectual stimulation is unsurpassed, and it truly keeps the Kerpers active. Bob and Mary Elizabeth love to decide which activities to participate in each day.
Bob says, “Shannondell has lived up to everything we thought it would be – and more. It’s like we’re on vacation. They organize so many trips and activities that you can’t possibly do them all! We went on the Atlantic City trip, and we’re going to the Christmas show in Lancaster.” Bob continued that Mary Elizabeth really enjoys painting, playing her piano, and singing with the Shannondell Singers choral group.
Not surprisingly, Bob reveals that out of everything Shannondell offers, the swimming pool appeals to him the most. He is still so passionate about swimming and makes a point to swim his eighty laps almost every day. Shannondell has enabled Bob to continue living an active life during retirement. If you are looking for Bob at Shannondell, the best place to find him is in the pool.