In 1941, the Columbia Daily Tribune stated, "The sixth
annual water carnival will be presented tonight in the Christian
College swimming pool under the direction of Mrs. Sue Gerard. The
theme, which takes place at the bottom of the ocean, is built
around a dream of a little boy who falls asleep and dreams he is
in the center of a court of mermaids.
"The carnival will include a special underwater swimming
number with novelty lighting effects. Designed and constructed by
W.F. Gerard. The soloist will present a spectacular effect with
strokes, surface diving, underwater swimming and performing
various water ballet stunts."
This novelty lighting effect was a set of 16 flashlight bulbs
powered by four flashlight batteries and worn by swimmers in a
darkened pool room. I first learned that underwater lights could
be used safely in the mid-1930s. An American Red Cross field
representative from Iowa told me how it could be done. My
boyfriend, Chub Gerard, an electrical engineering student at MU,
assured me that four flashlight batteries could not possibly be
dangerous in the water. After we married, he designed and made
Christian’s first set of underwater lights.
He strapped four size D flashlight batteries together and
secured them to a belt. The battery pack was to be worn on a
swimmer’s back. Four small wires carried power to 16
flashlight bulbs on arms and legs. We tied those wires in place
with elastic tape. Chub said tiny switches might rust or
malfunction instead, the swimmers would just twist two
bare wires together to illuminate the bulbs. A student in my
Water Carnival class volunteered to do the solo, and I helped her
work out a routine for what we called "water ballet."
She had practiced with the wires and batteries in place, but we
had not practiced with lights illuminated lest we drain too much
power from the batteries. On show night when the pool area began
to fill with spectators, the soloist said, "I can’t do
it. I’m simply afraid!" It was the thought of twisting
those two wires together that cinched the thing.
I wasn’t giving up. "OK gals, tie these wires on me.
I’m not afraid."
I knew the music well, and it was no problem to include the
stunts that we had chosen for her routine. I just swam hither and
yon, to the familiar music, but it certainly was not
synchronized. It was an unusual and beautiful thing to see the
lights almost disappear into deep water and then to come shooting
back up as I pushed from the pool bottom. I swam everything I
could think of: backstrokes, breast strokes, crawl, surface
dives, rolling from back crawl to front, somersaults and rolls,
much splashing at times when I was up catching breath. When the
music ended, I untwisted those bare wires, climbed out at the
shallow end and disappeared behind the shower stalls while the
There was never any doubt after that about the safety of
underwater lights. Chub had said, "It’s no more
dangerous than carrying a metal flashlight in the rain."
We used that set of lights for several years, replacing
batteries for each show. When we were planning a show later,
someone asked, "Why don’t we have a duet with the
underwater lights?" Great idea!
Maurice Wightman, Christian College’s wonderfully
creative man who could do everything, made four new sets of
lights, improving on the originals, and by 1972, when I retired,
Maurice had made lights enough for our routines to have eight
swimmers. For about 20 water shows, Chub’s
"invention" was the highlight of the performances.