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The Life of Legend as told to me by Benny Holt!

May 25, 2015 10:28PM ● By Paul Spear

Thomas Benjamin Holt, know to everyone as Benny, was born in 1943 into a family whose relatives first started migrating to Imperial Beach during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Benny’s parents arrived in IB about a year before his birth. He said his parents told him the family’s experience getting to California was very similar to John Steinbeck’s, A Grape of Wraths”.

Growing up in Imperial Beach so close to the ocean, his love affair of being in or around the water came to him at an early age. He loved being in the water body surfing and eventually picked up surfing just as soon as he was big enough.

 Benny graduated from Mar Vista High School in 1961 were he ran track and cross- country under the legendary Coach Ed Teagle. He credits Coach Teagle for changing the direction of his life from bumming around and drinking and putting a purpose in his life.

In 1962 he found himself in the US Air Force around the start of the Vietnam War. However, he ended up getting stationed in Turkey were he got his first experience and job as a lifeguard in 1964. "I actually started lifeguarding in Turkey in 1964 when I was in the Air Force," said Holt.

 After leaving the service he got a job as a lifeguard in 1967. He was hired to lifeguard in Imperial Beach by the legendary lifeguard and surfer Dempsey Holder. He continued to Lifeguard during the summers until he retired in 2014 at the age of 70. At that time of his retirement he had more than 47 years of service to Imperial Beach. As his job as a lifeguard Benny said ““I don’t consider this work, what a job, to get to work on the beach and get paid for it!”.

On his last day, fellow lifeguards threw him a retirement party. “It was a surprise,” said Robert Stabenow, Imperial Beach lifeguard captain. “A lot of former lifeguards were here. There was a lot of storytelling going on.”

When he got out of the service and starting lifeguarding in the summer, he went back to school in the winter. Continuing his education was very important to Benny. He spent two years at Southwestern College and two years at San Diego State and majored in Geology. Benny also continued his running track and cross-country at both schools and received his teaching credentials from San Diego State.

Benny is extremely well read and knowledgeable on history and on is top of current events. He even brought up an excellent point when we were covering the sewage problem Imperial Beach has with Mexico. Benny brought up that nothing has ever been said about whether there is any monitor for heavy chemicals or toxins from the industrial trash that has been disposed near the Tijuana River Area or in higher areas where the rain would cause those toxins to make their way to the Tijuana River too! He asked, what happens to it when it rains and that type of elements start getting into the water. I know they’re checking sewage but I have never heard anything about those toxins!

With his dream job in place as a lifeguard during the summers, he then got a job in 1971 with Montgomery High School coaching cross country and being a substitute teacher. From 1975 to 1978 he coached cross-country under his mentor Coach Ed Teagle at Bonita Vista High School. He was briefly at Marion High School in 1977/1978. Then in 1979 he returned to his Alma Mata, Mar Vista High School where his has assistant cross country and track coach and substitute teacher ever since. Benny is still coaching at Mar Vista High School where he works with the cross-country team and assisting the head coach.


Benny said being a lifeguard in the summer and teaching in the winter were the perfect jobs for him. It not only allowed him to do jobs he both loved, it also allowed him to travel on surf trips all over the world. It was a perfect situation for him. It was also great for him because he loved the kids he spent time with as a teacher and coach and he got to touch people’s lives as a lifeguard. He loves to help people!

When Benny retired from Lifeguarding in February, 2014 dozens of former and current IB Lifeguards and members of the surfing community gathered at the Holder Public Safety Center to honor Benny. 

Last week Thomas Benjamin Holt, Benny, was honored by the City of Imperial Beach at the May 20th IB City Council Meeting for his 47 years of service to the city as a lifeguard. However, the events turned out to be a much larger affair! The event drew a huge crowd and some people had to watch in a second room where the meeting was being broadcast to.

Benny received an award from the City of Imperial Beach for his 47 years of service to the City as a lifeguard. The award was presented to him by IB Lifeguard Captain Robert Stabenow and the mayor. 

Benny also received awards from multiple others. In all Benny received awards from Congressman Juan Vargas who had Benny's name immortalized by putting in the US House of Representatives Congressional Records. He also received awards from the Port of San Diego, Mar Vista High School for his 30 plus years of service as a substitute teacher and assistant coach as he coached the Cross-Country Team. Other awards included: County Supervisor Greg Cox, State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and the Port of San Diego.

The Highlight of the night had to be when a group of lifeguards Benny had worked with and mentored over the years joined him for a group photo.

Benny then left the council meetings where he was mobbed by friends and people’s lives he had touched who were there to see him received his awards.

Benny Holt, who has worked as an assistant cross country and track coach at Mar Vista High School since 1979 and an Imperial Beach Lifeguard since 1967 has mentored generations of students and IB Lifeguards.  For him, it has been a dream life and wouldn’t have had it any other way!

I want to personally thank Benny for taking the time to sit down with me and share his life story with me.

Paul Spear, Editor for Dig Imperial Beach

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