The Journal Gazette
Thursday, December 24, 2020 1:00 am

Jan. 1, 1975: Reporter tries polar bear splash

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Polar bear dips in the city's rivers have been a New Year's Day tradition for many years. In 1975, Journal Gazette reporter Jim Wasserman participated in a plunge to see what it was all about.

He found it was a thrill, but a cold one! The temperature was 28 degrees that day, with a wind chill much lower. His account of the day from 1975 appears below.

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"Reporter's Polar Bear Splash Wasn't Really THAT Bad," by Jim Wasserman (Jan. 2, 1975)

They all were there, Daredevils, stunt enthusiasts and people who will try just about anything once.

There was the Lafayette schoolteacher, claiming he holds the world record for walking 2,100 miles around the Indianapolis Speedway.

Then there was the guy who said he'd ridden his bicycle across the country after graduating from high school "just for fun."

I was beginning to see a pattern of the types of people who will strip to their swimsuits to take an annual New Year's Day dip in the St. Joe River. Eighty people, myself included, were out for a cheap thrill.

It was a sunny 28 degrees in Fort Wayne Wednesday afternoon, with a wind chill factor of much less than that. Inside the St. Joe Athletic Club, just a short dash across Griswold Avenue to the banks of the St. Joe, the annual Polar Bear party had begun.

I stepped inside about 1:30 p.m. and walked bravely to the desk to sign a registration form absolving the club from any responsibility in case of injuries.

Roy Puff, making his 35th annual New Year's Day dip and calling it his last, was a center of attention, decked out in a newspaper hat, tank top with 35 taped onto it, tie-dyed swim trunks and firemen's boots.

Lots of younger "bears" were numbing out their body temperatures with cans of Stoh's and Schlitz. And everywhere the veterans were laughing about the New Year's Day dip of nineteen fifty or sixty-what and "you think it's cold this year, well..."

It was five minutes before the zero hour. I had changed into an old pair of cutoffs and was ready, dangling a dry towel around my neck. It was hot inside the club. Just for good measure I bummed to heavy sips of Stroh's. No sense taking any chances.

Outside TV cameras and a couple hundred people waited, gathering to watch us "crazies" get wet.

Last minute conversation filled the room. Jay Bohlander was ready for his 13th swim, wearing his trunks, a "Happy New Year's" party hat, and an Hawaiian lei around his neck, puffing on a big cigar.

Vicky Stucky, prepared for her third annual splash, was dressed in her blue bikini, bobby socks and two-tone saddle shoes, offering encouragement to her three teenage girlfriends she had dared into coming along.

Who knows who started it, but suddenly we were making the run across the street, looking like we were in Miami, but really in the throes of a Midwest winter wind.

I was near the end of the line, but the look on the frozen faces rushing past me for the clubhouse and the screams from up front told me I should be cheering on Ohio State from my living room.

In a few seconds the murky waters of the St. Joe were before me and I lost no time. Rushing in, there was this blast of cold that's only comparable to being run down by a lion on the loose. Earlier a man had said, "It's like being drunk and somebody hitting you. All of a sudden you're not drunk anymore."

In 10 seconds I was back on terra firma, but the JG photographer needed more film. So, back into the drink.

The towel I entrusted to him had been snatched away by some cold soul long before I got out. Walking back to the clubhouse, I realized it hadn't really been THAT bad. I was in the daze people go into when they know they have to do something, no matter how adverse the circumstances.

The clubhouse was wild. Nobody had turned blue and everyone was screaming, laughing and drying out. The cold water didn't mix too well with one man's hangover and he made a fast getaway to the safe refuge of a toilet bow.

Most of them said they'd be back next year. People left, fully dressed, each calling, "See you next year."

By 2:25 p.m. only a few remained inside the club. It was a time for reflection: still trying to get the blood moving. Next year? I doubt it. Being a "Polar Bear" has been accomplished.

There are new cheap thrills to seek out.


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