AVALON, N.J. - If anyone was wondering - maybe, say, Angelo Cataldi, famously shown no mercy in a 1999 Avalon beach-tag conflagration, or perhaps Frank Wilson, formerly of Chester County, who sued Avalon in 2001 and won $175,000, driven arguably mad after being repeatedly whistled out of the water when he tried to swim after 5 p.m., or, really, anyone who ever threw a ball close to the water or otherwise tangled with the famously vigilant Avalon Beach Patrol, yes, its leader, Capt. Murray Wolf, 77, is back for another season, his 61st on the beach.
Did you really think he was going anywhere?
"When I started, I was the youngest," Wolf said. "Now I'm the oldest. It's just what I do."
"I really respect him. His guys are disciplined and structured," says Chief Stan Bergman, 75, of Ventnor's beach patrol, himself no slouch in the longevity department, coming up just shy of Wolf at 59 seasons and interviewed this week after some casual morning power lifting at headquarters.
"I call him the warrior. He's battle-tested. They have a tough beach."
Others have a different take on the undisputed lifeguard king's reign.
"I do harbor ill will toward Murray Wolf, and I always will," Cataldi, WIP's morning host, said by email. "I go back to Avalon quite often, but I will never step on an Avalon beach while he is still on duty. I prefer a relaxed environment when I go to the beach. That is not possible in Avalon, and it won't be until Murray Wolf finally leaves."
Wolf said: "I heard he went to Sea Isle and got into trouble there."
Cataldi responded: "That comment is typical of what a [deleted] Murray Wolf is. I have owned homes in Sea Isle for close to 20 years, with no - zero - incidents."
Woah, boys, knock it off. Hasn't anyone mellowed in the last decade and a half?
At 77, Wolf's storied reputation as the toughest lifeguard on the beach is intact, burnished last season when Avalon unexpectedly won the South Jersey Lifeguard Championships held on the beaches of defending champ Margate, a feat not accomplished by any patrol below Ocean City in two decades.
Two of Wolf's three sons were in boats that accumulated enough points to eke out the title (Matt in the doubles row, Erich in the singles, both with two third-place finishes that nonetheless left Avalon more points than Ventnor and Margate).
Avalon's small-ball victory only adds to the intrigue of this year's season of Lifeguard races, a competition of intense rivalries dating to 1924.
Another dynamic this year: Ashton Funk, one of Margate's dominant rowers, is suspended due to being arrested in a $7.98 Sizzli shoplifting incident in the Margate Wawa. Funk was nabbed after a tip from a Longport police officer, also in Wawa. Was it all sabotage, to take Funk out of the competitions?
Funk attorney Louis Barbone says an appeals judge may dismiss the case against Funk before July, based on his appeal arguing the whole matter was too trivial for prosecution, which could, in theory, put Funk back into competition. Hardly trivial, from that perspective.
Wolf feigns nonchalance about the championship, refusing to pose holding the trophy, but last summer said: "It's been a while, and quite honestly it had been bothering us." Make no mistake, they'll be gunning for Avalon.
For now, Wolf seems more concerned with the headache of having to now host two big races: the South Jerseys on Aug. 12, plus Avalon's annual David Kerr Memorial on July 31, named for a lifeguard who passed away in 1982 of skin cancer.
Memorial Day weekend up and down the Jersey Shore was, in Wolf's polite description, "a mess." Margate, Sea Isle, Wildwood, and even Avalon reported lots of underage and open drinking on beaches, as well as trash and rowdiness. In Margate, there were at least 10 arrests on beaches near Lucy the Elephant, mostly for underage drinking, said Detective Joe Scullion. Avalon administrator Scott Wahl said he'd heard of only one actual arrest.
Wolf says he prefers that his beach patrol summon the police for police issues, but the beach patrol inevitably gets blamed. As one writer in the Cape May County Herald wrote: "Where was beach patrol in Avalon this Memorial Day weekend? The beaches resembled a bar."
Wolf rose to the position of captain in 1967. He spent 50 years as a physical-education teacher in Pleasantville, some kind of record. Now, he rides an old cruiser bike to the 32nd Street headquarters.
What's changed? More paperwork, issues about insurance. The behavior of the crowds so far this year, already concerning.
Wolf wants people to know there's been no mellowing. He'll dismiss any guard with a cellphone on the stand. "My approach is always the same," he said. "It says Lifeguard on Duty. It's a duty."
His 80 guards are loyal, know their place in the hierarchy. When a few guards gathered at Wolf's command for a photo recently, Lou Papa, 27, a guard with a tattoo of the outline of New Jersey, joked, "We're all out of arms' reach, if you noticed."
One on one, Wolf is agreeable and personable. It's the short leash on which he keeps both visitors and his lifeguards alike that has made the reputation. OK, and maybe that sign-off salute he uses to dismiss his guards, beach by beach, mile by mile, at day's end. Wilson, who sued, likened him to a German field general. (When last Wilson was heard from, attorney Frank Corrado said, he had moved to the Keys.)
Wolf makes no apologies. He's there to keep people safe, not win friends on sports radio.
"We pretty much have the same rules," Wolf said. "Someone was accusing us of having a Nazi salute."
As for Cataldi, Wolf said: "He's not going to get a break."
Even skin cancer hasn't gotten the better of Capt. Wolf. He just keeps going to the surgeon.
"I have plenty of it," he says. "I'm always getting stuff taken off."
Heading into the 61st season, Wolf's thoughts drift toward those on his patrol whom he has, improbably, outlasted. There was Kerr, whose signature long hair jumps out from old photographs, flying out of lifeguard boats. Kerr was just 28, a year past a breakout season as a doubles rower.
"I had to take him out of the boat," Wolf recalled. "He thought he was letting us down. He was the nicest person, stayed in that row till he spilled blood."
There was Matt Mullin, 26, who died in a boating accident in 2009; Brendan White, 32, who died of cancer; Brett V. Fitzpatrick, 25, a beach patrol medic, found dead on the Avalon beach on New Year's Day 2014, a death ruled an accidental drowning. Wolf is not convinced. He hasn't let it go.
It's poignant to see Wolf thinking about these lost guards, even as on him, time seems not to wear even his rough edges.
Kerr, he admits, would try to get the captain to tone it down: "He would say, 'Can't we do it a different way, Murray?' "