For seasoned Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson, July 6, 2014 started out like any other sunny southern California day at the beach. But, on this day, the swells pealing in from the tumultuous, white-capped ocean were larger than usual, driven by an offshore hurricane pounding the coast. Up and down the 6 ½ miles of Newport’s coastline, red warning flags whipped ominously in the wind, alerting beachgoers of the dangerous undertow. As he arrived at lifeguard headquarters for his shift, Ben sensed the heightened energy in the air as rescue calls steadily streamed over the radio.
What no one anticipated on that fateful day was the call that one of their own was in trouble. By days’ end, Ben Carlson would lose his life saving a distressed swimmer–one of more than 278 people rescued by the 75 lifeguards on duty. His family, friends, fellow guards and the community he bravely served for 15 years would never be the same.
Two years have passed quickly since his death, but, all the while, the work of bringing Ben’s legacy and the lessons learned from his loss have been in full swing, thanks to the love and dedication of those he left behind.
Soon after his memorial, which was attended by more than 5,000 people, the Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation was formed with four specific goals: Scholarship, Safety, Stoke and Statue. These embody the Foundation’s mission to award significant annual scholarships to well-deserving students; promote water safety, education and awareness; serve under-resourced youth programs, and erect a Ben Carlson Memorial Statue in McFadden Square to honor Ben’s heroism and provide a symbol of respect for lifeguards worldwide.
A coordinated fundraising program, aptly entitled “Raise Up for Ben” was launched and, not surprisingly, donations from the community and beyond began to flow in.
This outpouring of support has enabled the Foundation to award an impressive $40,000 worth of student scholarships to date and underwrite costs of the statue, which was donated to the City of Newport Beach. Designed by Ben’s brother-in-law, Jake Janz, a talented, trained artist and designer who crafted the statue using 3-D imaging technology, the nine-foot likeness of Ben is cast in Marine-grade stainless steel.
On July 5, the statue was installed on a pedestal in the center of its landscaped seating area, wrapped tightly and later covered in a shroud of silken cloth for the reveal. Security guards stood watch throughout the night, and lifeguards stood watch throughout the day. In the afternoon of the 6th, firefighters skillfully maneuvered their huge hook and ladder, unfurling a gigantic American flag behind the area. Lifeguard vehicles were placed nearby, and the crowd began to build.
Early in the evening on July 6, 2016, exactly two years after his death, thousands of Ben’s friends, family, fellow guards, police and fire personnel, residents and supporters packed McFadden Square at the base of the Benjamin M. Carlson Lifeguard Headquarters. Intentionally planned as an upbeat celebration of Ben’s life, acoustic music performed by singer/guitarist Duff Kelly wafted over the square while volunteers handed out 2,000 Foundation t-shirts.
Just before sunset – the time that Ben’s body was found, the brief ceremony got underway with a presentation by a U.S. Color Guard led to the stage by a troupe of bagpipers and drummers. Brief comments were made by city officials, and lovable stories of Ben were recalled. There were lots of smiles and laughter, and not just a few tears, but it was clear, everyone was there for Ben, his family, and the milestone achievement of the statue becoming a reality. His parents Teri and Chris beamed with gratitude, and a general feeling of closure could be felt as the crowd gathered around them to celebrate the beautiful representation of Ben, his life and ultimate sacrifice.
A moment of silence fell over the crowd as Ben’s sister Stephanie, Jake and their two boys, Brody and Bronson, approached the statue for the unveiling. Ben’s friends gathered and everyone began counting down. As the gray silk slid to the ground, the sunset reflected off Ben’s stunning steel likeness as the bagpipers broke in to a celebratory reel. The crowd was filled with applause, hugs and a collective feeling of honor, held only for those who die in the service of their fellow man. It was a befitting and heartfelt tribute to our untimely hero, Ben Carlson, who will watch guard over Newport’s shores forever.
For more information about the Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation, please visit BenCarlsonFoundation.org.