James Veselenak


James Veselenak


James Veselenak was a lifeguard on Belle Isle in 1967. He remembers reporting to work unaware of the situation when he was stopped by a policeman who eventually let him through. He was later called back to help prepare the island to house prisoners.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Written Story


My brother sent me this link and suggested I write about my experiences from the Summer of 1967.

First of all, a little background. My name is James Veselenak. I was born in 1949 and raised on Archdale Street in Northwest Detroit. I graduated from St. Mary's of Redford High School in 1967. I received my B.S and M.S. from Eastern Michigan University and my Ph.D. from Michigan State University. I am currently retired and living in Springfield, IL after teaching 35 years at the University of Illinois Springfield.

After graduating from high school, I was hired by the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation as a lifeguard and was assigned to the Belle Isle beach. Everything was going smoothly until Sunday, July 23rd. My shift was to start at 10:00 AM. I arrived at the entrance of the Belle Isle bridge at about 9:30. There was a police car blocking the entrance. I did not think anything was amiss since the island was occasionally closed due to overcrowding. I stopped and a police officer got out of his car and approached me. I noticed he was carrying a rifle. Something was up. He asked me what I was doing there. I said I was going to work on the island. He asked what I did. I said I was a lifeguard. He asks if I could prove it. I thought about being a smart ass and answering that I could swim there. Looking at the rifle, I thought that would not be wise. I showed him my whistle and locker key. That was all I had for proof. He went back to his squad car, talked on the radio, came back and said I could go ahead onto the island. Once on the island, I immediately noticed something was wrong - it was empty. I drove to the bathhouse where other lifeguards were gathered. They informed me that there was a riot in progress. I had not heard anything about this on the radio while driving to Belle Isle. After a few minutes a police officer stopped and informed us that here was indeed trouble near 12th and Clairmount streets and that the island would be closed indefinitely. He also said the island was ours for the day but that we should leave before nightfall. We spent the next few hours racing our cars around the island. Imagine that. We had the whole island to ourselves for the day. What fun. Finally, I went home and let my parents know that there was rioting. They were not aware of the problems. Local radio did not indicate trouble in Detroit. It was not until the national news came on TV at 6:00 before any information was learned.

On Monday, I received a phone call from the Parks and Recreation Department. I was to report to the Belle Isle bathhouse, not for life-guarding but to help convert the bathhouse into a jail. I spent the day setting up cots and and other duties such as constructing scaffolding for lighting. The police started bringing in prisoners and the area got very busy. I talked to a number of police about what was happening. It sounded quite scary. I have one story I would like to relate. This is from one of the police officers. It goes like this: A number of police were pinned behind their cars by a sniper in a building. A few of them felt something hitting them in their backs. Finally one of them turned around and I quote "...saw a hippy who was shooting at us with rubber-tipped arrows. So we went and broke his arms." The police provided a pass to get through the curfew and I went home. Quite a day!

When I returned home, I realized my father was quite concerned. My mother was pregnant and due any day. His concern was that if my mother went into labor after the 9:00 curfew how could he take her to the hospital. He was afraid of being stopped. I told him that if he were stopped it would be obvious what was happening and that he would get an escort to the hospital. As it turned out, he did have to take her the next day after the curfew and my brother was born July 25th.

After the rioting subsided. I was reassigned to Butzel Park pool for the rest of the summer. The Belle Isle beach was not reopened that year.

The next year the Tigers won the World Series. This helped bring the city back together but the Detroit I grew up in was never the sane is no more..

Original Format


Submitter's Name

James Veselenak

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“James Veselenak,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed February 21, 2024, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/484.

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