The summer season comes to an end today as we celebrate Labor Day. It also means Coach Clifford’s job at the beach in Lake Geneva is over until next Memorial Day. WUWM’s Susan Bence popped down to the sand to talk with the man who doesn’t have any qualms about being called a beach bum.
I walk past the old snack canteen above this picturesque lake. The water couldn’t be bluer and the sky couldn’t possibly be clearer. It’s one of those perfect late summer mornings. You walk down a set of concrete steps, freshly blown free of the sand from yesterday’s mass of wet little feet. That’s where Joe Clifford reigns. He manages Lake Geneva’s public beach.
“I’ve got to open up my gate, because you see, there could be people waiting at my gate,” Clifford says.
Sound a little testy? Maybe that’s because we had a slight case of miscommunication. I had called Joe the day before and thought he said the beach opens at 10.
“We open when I start blowing the steps,” Clifford says.
That was almost an hour ago.
“Just the same as when you were a kid in school. You don’t listen, you don’t pay attention,” Clifford says.
Let’s get the truth out right now. I grew up in this town. Joe Clifford taught gym at the high school. I hated gym class, nothing personal. Joe Clifford’s life started in Watertown, Wisconsin.
“My family at that time owned the Watertown Daily Times. And anyway I didn’t want any part of that. And my father was a lawyer and I wasn’t going to do that and so I went to La Crosse because I thought I could play football there,” Clifford says.
He did play football and graduated. That’s when Lake Geneva comes into the picture. He was hired to do high school coaching here.
“You know I was the head football coach for 15 years and I was the head wrestling coach, and most choir boys aren’t wrestlers. And I was track coach for 40 years, but I was head coach for twenty,” Clifford says.
Long before Clifford retired from high school coaching he landed this summer gig. Clifford says he avoids the main gate, where people pay, get their wrist bands. He says that way too much work. Clifford takes me down to the east gate. That’s his station. I ask if he uses a chair or just stands all day.
“Certainly, I get a chair, I’m just being polite talking with you,” Clifford says.
We stroll out of Clifford’s gate to the Riviera, that’s where you do things like catch an excursion boat or buy pop corn and candy bars. Clifford leads me in a crammed storage room filled with beach supplies. He says it’s not his stuff.
"No, this is none of my stuff. I’m not supposed to be in here. I sneak in here. I got a key," Clifford says.
Clifford grabs a chair, a backpack and some sort of umbrella contraption.
“This whole thing here that I’m going to put up now is my invention,” Clifford says.
He pulls out two flexible poles and a green canvas and voila, we’re under a five-foot patch of shade. As the sun moves later in the morning, he’ll rig up the next canopy.
“We never do any work until it’s necessary,” Clifford says.
I finally get to see Clifford in action. Two young moms roll up to his gate with massive strollers. They didn’t know, you can only pay at the main entrance. But Clifford let’s them in anyway.
“If you don’t go buy that ticket, the next set of mothers that come, they have to stand out here forever. We’re not letting them in,” Clifford says.
Clifford says that’s what he loves about the job, meeting people, bantering with them.
“Many of the people that come to this beach or foreign people, because they come to Chicago to vacation and they come out here for a day in the sun. And if they come in my gate and they have an accent, I ask them where they’re from and what they do and why they’re here and I get very informed. And some days it’s not unusual to meet people from probably 10 or 15 different countries. See, it’s a great job,” Clifford says.
Clifford says another great thing about this job is having students, almost 40 years worth, come back to see him.
“I enjoy it and I’m not going to quit,” Clifford says.
Labor Day marks the end of Clifford’s beach season. Tomorrow he’ll be working at a local golf course, bantering with more people.