Rose Bowl Aquatics Director Leaves Legacy After 30 Years

Rose Bowl Aquatics Center Executive Director Kurt Knop and Board Chair Pat Amsbry (from left) are planning a celebration for Mary Pinola, who recently retired after nearly 30 years as director of development, leaving a legacy of educational programming at the nonprofit.

After nearly 30 years of working as director of development at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, it seems fitting that one of Mary Pinola’s favorite memories is a simple one, albeit repeated by nearly 30,000 children during her tenure.
It’s the moment a 3rd grader edges up to the end of a diving platform — gingerly, small toes curling over the edge — and then takes a leap into the deep end. It’s a leap of faith, both in the ability at having learned to swim and in the confidence that will last a lifetime, cheered on by the instructor in the water and teachers watching from the pool’s edge.
Pinola thinks of the leap as the defining moment a student has learned to swim through the RBAC’s Water Safety/Learn-to-Swim program, which provides all 1,450 of the 3rd-grade students in each of the 17 elementary schools in Pasadena Unified School District with 15 water safety and swim lessons each year. The jump in the water is one of the last tests in the weeks-long program held at its facility in Brookside Park, just south of the Rose Bowl Stadium.
“I will always treasure hearing that little boy who said ‘It was a loooong way down,’” said Pinola, who would often ask the kids how they felt after jumping for the first time.
The former English teacher was pinnacle in creating many educational programs at the RBAC, but the Learn-to-Swim program is a special point of pride. It was one of the first free, educational aquatics programs of its scope and scale offered to public schools across the nation, and Pinola was charged with fundraising for it year after year, as well as helping to find the best curriculum possible to teach a child to swim in just three weeks.
It’s why the RBAC is creating, with the Pasadena Community Foundation, the Mary Pinola Water Safety Learn-to-Swim program fund, which will grow in perpetuity and serve many more children for years to come, said RBAC Executive Director Kurt Knop. It’s also a way to honor Pinola’s many years of service and dedication, which is difficult to quantify, he noted.
“She’s one of the most dynamic, energetic people I have ever known over the years; if she hasn’t been the brain child behind a program, she’s been the driving force to make them realized … she’s not really a ‘commemorative watch’ person, so we think this is something she’ll approve of,” said Knop, laughing as he described some of Pinola’s more “ingratiating” traits, including “relentless and tireless.”
As director of development, Pinola was single-handedly in charge of fundraising for the nonprofit, especially for programs like the Learn-to-Swim, which costs about $250,000 per year to provide all PUSD 3rd-graders with swim instruction, bathing suits, towels and transportation.
“We knew this program would create real results, and we knew we could demonstrate it … 80% of students in third grade do not know how to swim. ‘No child should ever drown’ — those are words that really drove what we were trying to accomplish,” she said. “We know learning to swim saves lives and helps build a lifetime of confidence and healthy recreation.”
Drowning, including non-fatal drowning, impacts families everywhere around the globe, regardless of geography, race or economics. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1-4 in the United States. Those numbers are dire still for older minority children or for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, Pinola noted.
For many years, linen service wasn’t part of the budget, but when Pinola noticed there were children who couldn’t participate because they didn’t have towels, she began providing them, even taking them home to launder.
“That was typical of Mary,” Knop said, and recalled when he first began as director of RBAC; it was his first day on the job, and he’d only been seated at his desk for about 10 minutes when Pinola came in, warmly greeted him, and then quickly pressed upon him the importance of the creation of the warm-water therapy pool. “She wouldn’t leave until she got my commitment.”
The warm-water therapy pool was an enormous undertaking at the time, as it required high-grade equipment to lower and lift a person into and out of the pool, as well as increased staffing to help those in the water and a heating system to keep the water at 91 degrees. Initially, the budget was for $1.5 million, and for which Pinola tirelessly fundraised through barbecues and dinners.
“There have been a whole lot of hotdogs over the years,” she admitted.
The therapy pool, in particular, hit home to her personally. One of her teenage daughters came down with rheumatoid arthritis in the midst of trying to get the pool built. They had a hard time finding warm water therapy that had hours conducive to work around her school schedule. Eventually, her daughter even testified to the pool’s importance at Pasadena City Council. The pool got approval and was built, albeit with a few grants and scaled down size to lower the budget.
Nonetheless, it’s proved enormously successful at the RBAC and is in continuous use, giving those with disabilities or in recovery from injuries a healthy outlet and access to activity they would otherwise not have. Its success early on taught Pinola a valuable lesson in the art of development.
“People would say, ‘Oh you want to do something that sounds a little crazy?’ But I learned that if you listen to people, work with other organizations, put one foot in front of the other, and can design a parallel educational program that gives results — measurable results — you can turn a wild idea into a tangible idea that people will support,” she said. “Of course, it helped that I always truly believed in what we were doing … I consider myself really blessed in having had a job and projects that I truly believed in, and could could make a difference; sometimes you do things and only hope it makes a difference, but I got to see the difference in my time there, which is incredibly fulfilling.”
Pinola’s tenacity in turning around a crazy idea also translated into writing grants for the nonprofit, Knop said, noting that her success rate was “tremendous.” Using her expertise as a high school English teacher helped her write clear cut, detail-oriented grants.
Giving tours of the aquatics center was one of Pinola’s specialties, as she knew how to highlight and show off the programs in action, depending on the day, and would greet dozens of swimmers by name along the way.
“Mary was our mayor, our team mom, our cheerleader and just has a public servant mindset who gives of herself in an exceptional way — and yes, she knows everybody who walks through our doors. She’s just a pillar of the aquatics center,” Knop said.
RBAC Board Chair Pat Amsbry, who worked closely with Pinola over the years, called her “relentless,” a description that echoes across her decades of service. Not only would she tirelessly organize fundraisers, but doggedly recruit volunteers for service at the nonprofit.
“I can attest that she has been extremely convincing in getting me to say ‘yes’ to all sorts of volunteer projects over the years — she is relentless!” Amsbry said, adding jokingly that he looks forward to signing her up for volunteer jobs in her retirement. “I discovered that few people are more resilient, creative and committed to bettering their community and their neighbors than Mary. She is full of love for all she does and everyone she meets, and beloved by all who are fortunate to meet her.”
Pinola, a young 72-years-old, said in retirement she looks forward to playing with her grandbaby and visiting a daughter in Arizona, and preparing to host a wedding for another daughter.
But the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center and its educational programs will always be near and dear to Pinola. If you run into her, just ask how you might be able help — she has a short list.
To learn more about the aquatics center, visit rosebowlaquatics.org.

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