As published in the Inquirer by Kevin Riordan, Inquirer Columnist
As a charter member of Cherry Hill’s Old Orchard Swim Club, Bob Rueppel helped organize its first team and inaugurate a regional “Mini-Meet” for little swimmers.
That annual event – scheduled this year on Sunday, July 6 at Old Orchard – has offered some 13,000 girls and boys 9 and under their first taste of competitive swimming since 1969.
In 2009, it was renamed the “Bob Rueppel Mini-Meet.”
Not bad for a city boy who couldn’t swim a stroke until he was 50.
“I grew up in the Bronx . . . but my children swam, and were very good at it,” says Rueppel, 79, as we chat poolside with club president Maureen Behm and board member Dan Thompson.
Set in a lovely grove of mature trees, Old Orchard has a $100,000 annual budget. A summer membership costs a family of four $662; about 150 families are on the rolls, compared with 300 in the early days.
Rueppel, Behm and Thompson agree: New leisure options, and a shrinking pool of young families with children, make competition for members much tougher. And two-career families can’t simply drop younger kids off at a swim club, as they can at, say, a summer day camp.
“Old Orchard was a brand-new community when we moved here from Connecticut in 1966,” says Rueppel, who was a district supervisor for what was then Manufacturers Hanover Trust.
“Everyone was between 25 and 35, with young children,” he recalls. “The club was a great place to come to. I’d get back from a business trip and there’d be a note on the table, ‘We’re at the club.’ ”
Most of Cherry Hill’s 13 private swim clubs were built during the great suburban development tsunami of the 1950s and ’60s. Similar clubs opened elsewhere in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties as well.
But family-friendly oases named for township neighborhoods like Fox Hollow, Downs Farm, and Kingston – each with their own teams, trophies, and traditions – have long been synonymous with summer in South Jersey’s signature suburb.
And competitions among the Cherry Hill clubs, particularly for the coveted Cherry Bowl, help connect residents and neighborhoods across the sprawling township’s east-west divide.
“The clubs are part of what the community is about,” says Tim O’Connor, president of the Cherry Hill Association of Pools, which is working with the township to help the pools reduce costs.
“We recognize the importance of these clubs to the town,” says Bridget Palmer, communications director for Mayor Chuck Cahn.
“The township is providing certain services, such as trash collection, and has reduced tax assessments on the clubs in recognition of what they provide to the community,” Palmer says, adding that Cherry Hill encourages the clubs to cut costs through cooperative purchasing agreements.
The township clubs also are integral to the 36-member Tri-County Swimming Pool Association, says longtime association official Chris Brookover. Tri-County serves about 4,000 young swimmers, and its championship meet is the peak of the season.